What Donald Trump Can Teach Us About Political Correctness

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I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “political correctness” used approvingly and without irony. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve heard it used derisively. I regard it as one of the central ironies of modern politics that it hasn’t been politically correct to be politically correct since the notion first became a household term. This hasn’t stopped people from proudly proclaiming (often to great applause) the brave mantle of ‘Political Incorrectness’. Indeed, countless courageous souls have made sure we all know how little regard they have for political correctness. The near universal disregard for political correctness, as such doesn’t seem to faze its detractors. It pretty well goes without saying that if the subject is political correctness, the correct thing to say is that you’re against it. Do that, and you earn all kinds of points for being a independent minded maverick of sorts.

Just like all other independent mavericky people.

In fact, that story-line is so damned pat, you’d think even the dimmest among us would have second thoughts about it, but I guess not. The narrative is just too damned strong, and the benefits to plotting your politics inside it too great to resist. So, it pretty well goes without saying that anyone worth his salt would proclaim himself to be politically incorrect.

It’s the American thing to do!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve heard the stories too, the PC-horror stories, I mean. Some of them piss me off too, and some of them are utter bullshit. It’s a big topic, and I could type out a lot of things about it, but for now I want to explore just one particular part of it.

That would be the part where a Presidential candidate and then a President (Donald Trump) would proudly proclaim his own political incorrectness. Among all the many absurdities that fly under the banner of the politically incorrect, there is at least one that is fairly unique to Donald Trump’s use of it. Because if there was anyone that we might expect to be politically correct, that we might actually want to be politically correct, you would think it would be the President of the United States.

Yes, I’m serious.

I realize that in most circles ‘Political correctness’ simply means whatever lefty political agenda people feel like dismissing at the moment, but if you stop and think about the phrase itself for just a minute, you might see some trace of a meaning that isn’t quite confined to that sort of canned polemic. Indeed, there is no particular reason respect for Christian values, honoring the troops, or celebrating a conventional American family would count as any less politically correct than support for gay marriage, celebration of black history month, or avoidance of any number of racial epithets. In principle, right wing causes could as easily count as political correctness as those of the left, and make no mistake about it; they are as likely to produce the sort of toxic pettiness that fill so many of those PC-horror stories people tell sometime between their second and third beers on a Friday night. We seem only use the word for left-wing causes, but there are numerous comparable cause in right wing circles. And if there is any trace of a positive meaning in that phrase, it’s this; that political correctness can mean thinking about the consequences of what you are about to say before you say it, taking into account the feelings of others and their likely reactions to your words before you decide what to say and do. That same notion may produce all sorts of stories about censorship, professional victimhood, and fake outrage. It also produces countless stories generally left untold, those in which someone finds just the right words, shows respect to people she might easily have slighted, or simply handles a tough topic with grace and dignity. We don’t seem to have a label for such stories. That label could as easily be ‘political correctness’ as any of those now provoking outrage in countless gossip circles all across the land.

To be sure, there are distinctions to be made between respect and dignity on the one hand and the pointless pettiness generally associated with stories of political correctness, but those distinctions don’t really fall along a left-right axis, and the phrase itself has never helped anyone to draw those distinctions with any care. Indeed sneering ‘political correctness’ at an issue is little other than an effort to avoid drawing those distinctions with anything approaching thoughtfulness and precision.

If there are those who have used the phrase with more care than i suggest, our current President is not among them. Think back to the infamous moment in which Megan Kelly (perhaps accidentally) separated herself from the right wing faithful, and you can see the character of Donald’s own use of ‘political correctness’. Asked about his frequent use of abusive words against any women who crossed him, Trump responded by saying that he didn’t have time to be politically correct. Of course that was after first trying to pass off the notion that he only denigrates Rosie O’Donnell, but when forced off that gambit, Trump settled on the notion that his lifetime of vicious personal attacks against myriad women was simply failure to obey the dictates of political correctness. Trump wasn’t asking us to reject some far left political agenda; he was asking the American public to accept his own personal vice on grounds that failure to do so would be an instance of political correctness. He was asking us to accept that the most flagrant contempt for common decency was somehow little other than a rejection of left-wing excess.

Here I must say, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sorrow, sorrow for the death of conservatism as I once knew it. Oh, I don’t count myself as a conservative, not since I was about 18 years old, but I’ve known many conservatives I have admired and respected over the years. They generally vote Republican and I rarely agree with them on much of anything, but if there is one thing that separates the old school conservatives I recall from my youth from the right wing politics of today, it is precisely the effectiveness of Trump’s ploy. There is simply nothing in cultural conservatism that is amenable to the kind of crass treatment Trump has dished out to women over the years. Not his personal attacks on female adversaries, and not asinine talk of sexual conquest. Time was, when conservatives would have been the first to object to such things, and perhaps some still do, but the bulk of the voting base for the Republican party seems to have shifted. Thus conventional respect for human beings in general, and conventional respect for women in particular became a sort of lefty, feminist, oppression, one gloriously vanquished with the promise of a President who couldn’t be pressured to treat a woman with dignity, at least not one marked for conquest, or one who had the audacity to get in his way.

I look back at Trump’s response to Kelly and marvel that anyone could find their way to a rationalization sufficient to support that guy. I also think about the time he stalked Hillary around the debate stage after threatening to lock her up and think the same thing. How did this kind of abuse become acceptable? In particular, how did it become acceptable to cultural conservatives? Near as I can tell, the answer lies in the narrative about political correctness. It recasts common crudeness, even cruelty, as a rejection of a obscure and nefarious political agenda, one no decent American would accept. That narrative alone was sufficient to lure millions of seemingly decent Americans to overlook some of the most brazenly abusive behavior to be displayed in public by a national politician.

It was a defining moment, and one that certainly doesn’t speak well of Trump’s character, or that of anyone who could defend it. It is objectionable in more ways that I could count, even with my shoes off, but the one objection that keeps haunting me is this simple thought; shouldn’t the President of the United States have time for political correctness? Isn’t that part of his job? When he enters into diplomatic negotiations, do we not want the President to be capable of choosing his words carefully? If you set aside the obvious angle of outright lefty-bashing, this is a job which requires all manner of careful judgements about what to say and what not to say, about who will be angry and what will they will do about it.

Only the stakes are much higher!

This is the thing that bothers me most about conventional PC-bashing. It makes a very convenient posture for many who, like Trump, seem think with their tongues. All too often, the notion that one is politically incorrect provides a ready-made excuse for all manner of perfectly conventional indiscretions. Sure, It’s the left wing that asks us to reconsider every day vocabulary for things like race, gender, and sexual orientation (among other things), but it’s not as though we are the only ones with any social sensitivities, and somehow the PC-bashing has became a sort of all-purpose excuse for the generally crass among us, the ones who just can’t be bothered to think before they talk.

People who cannot be bothered to consider how others will feel about their words seldom put much more thought into questions about the truth of those words. It’s one of the reasons why such people can be so damned sensitive themselves to any critical feedback they get. These folks can’t answer the criticisms and they know it, so they’d rather tell a story about the over-sensitivity of others, one which makes their first reflex into an unquestioned truth and the careful consideration of other just so much hogwash. PC-bashing ties this conventionally idiotic behavior to a broad range of set issues and it provides a blank check of sorts to anyone willing to play the role of the tough talking straight shooter.

It may seem that I am stretching the bounds of the concept. Political correctness doesn’t really cover that much of the issue, does it? Yet, I think it’s Trump who stretched the boundaries of the concept so broadly in this election, and not just in characterizing his contempt for women to political incorrectness. He also likened the expectation that people shouldn’t beat up protesters to political correctness. Trump himself has likened countless policy considerations regarding immigration, foreign diplomacy, and criminal law as instances of mere political correctness. And of course, it was Trump’s many sweeping attacks on Mexicans and Muslims that earned him the reputation as a ‘straight shooter’ back in the early days of his campaign. I never understood that. There was nothing straight or honest about Trump’s rhetoric, but so many seemed happy to equate rudeness with honesty that it became the standard media spin for awhile at least. Even Megan Kelly granted him that as she asked her infamous question. She too was willing to grant that Trump’s foolishness and cruelty should count as a kind of honesty. It’s the kind of equation best suited to the narratives of the politically incorrect.

…and it is doublespeak at its most deplorable!

It’s not just that Donald Trump expressed prejudice in his campaign rhetoric. He led with it. Prejudice was literally his first sales pitch. No, he didn’t say that all Mexicans were rapists, as his defenders often remind us, but he did say that Mexico was ‘sending’ its rapists. That wild accusation was not a call for immigration reform then, and it isn’t now. It was a clear and unmistakable signal to the racists in America that he would go after those they hated. How and when, and even why? All that would be made up later, …and so now we now get to see the GOP fiddle with token gestures at wall building. The physical wall that still haunts our policy discussions is merely the obligatory excretion of a rhetorical wall Trump built in that very first moment of his campaign. Through talk of a wall, Trump separated his supporters from the rest of us and polarized the nation as no American politician has done in my own life-time.

Why do we think of Trump’s various immigration restrictions as a ban on Muslims? Because he led with a call to ban entry of Muslims. It was only afterwards that Trump began walking the notion back to the various token policies now trotted before the courts. Ironically, folks now defend these policies by telling us Obama did the same thing (which is a stretch). This after Trump spent his entire campaign telling us how Obama wasn’t doing anything to protect us from terrorists. In any event, the point isn’t that Trump expressed a prejudice or three in the course of a campaign, or even in his Presidency. That would make him a run of the mill politician, perhaps even merely human. Prejudice was the centerpiece of his appeal from the beginning. It still is.

The result has been a non-stop clown show, a constant reminder that Trump doesn’t think before he speaks, writes, or even executive orders. We’ve all watched as his staff struggle to form policies around thoughtless statements and his surrogates have fought to rationalize the completely irrational utterances of the Ego-in-Chief. And this week we learn both that Trump sought to jail his critics in the press and that he shared intelligence secrets with Russian figures all in the space of a couple days. Whatever else this is, it is also the behavior of a man who doesn’t think before he does anything.

…and I can’t help but think all of this brings us right back to Trump’s response to Megan Kelly. He said he didn’t have time to be completely politically correct? In that very statement, Trump effectively told the entire nation that wasn’t then prepared to perform the duties of the President.

He isn’t now either.

Too Much Zoom for the Room!

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I take a lot of pictures, not because I’m particularly good with a camera, but because I feel fortunate to see some of the things I have these last few years. Mostly, when I take a picture, it’s the sort of naive realist in me wanting to show others this really neat thing I saw just over there. Afterwards I may crop and I might bring out the colors a bit here and there, but there really isn’t much art to what I do with a picture box. Every now and then, though, what catches my eye is a pattern or a texture. The results might be more fartsy than artsy, but I still think these pics are kind of amusing.

(As usual, you may click to embiggen)

 

 

 

Today’s Pointless Anecdote – A Conversation Between a Gang Leader and His Probation Officer.

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In my early 30s, I once found myself conducting interviews with the gang members in a small reservation community. There was only one road into this particular community. It had 2 cops, and believe me, everyone who might pay attention to that sort of thing knew when one of them drove a suspect out to the detention facilities out of town, leaving just one officer to keep the peace. Word was that the gang members pretty well ran this town. Word might have exaggerated the issue, but in this case, the claim seemed at least plausible.

I noticed, for example, that the name of a youth gang had been set in white rocks on the hillside on one side of town, accomplishing a pretty fair imitation of the way townships sometimes put their own names up on a hillside.

…only in this case, the name on the hillside was that of the gang.

In the year or so that I spent going into and out of this township, no-one took the gang’s name down. I do think that means something.

Other indications of the relative power (or at least the audacity) of the local gangs could be found. They had burned down the courthouse, and at one point a group of them had gone up to the motor home of a prosecutor and woke him up by shaking it and shouting things. The probation officer for the town had already told me that he was reluctant to file revocation requests in view of the relative power of the gangs. He would do it if given sufficient cause, but perhaps not as readily as he might if he were working under more stable conditions.

The courts and I had made arrangements whereby I could pay someone for setting up interviews with the gang members. We didn’t pay the members themselves, at least not for doing an interview with us, but we did could pay someone for setting up the interview. So, I went straight to the known leader of the local gang and he agreed to set up interviews with several members from his own set. I assume, he kicked some money back his homeboys, but that was all between them.

At some point in the afternoon, the gang leader asked me to give him a ride over to see his probation officer. He had an appointment, after which we could go see if we could find a few more people to interview.

A minute or so after he went in to see his probation officer, they opened the door and asked if I wanted to be present for the meeting. I eagerly agreed and joined them for about a half hour session. What followed was one of the most fascinating discussions I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. I don’t have my old notes with me, so this is not going to be exact, but as best I can remember, this is how the meeting went down.

The main gist of the conversation was a series of questions about whether or not the gang leader was meeting his obligations. He was making his probation meetings, alright, but was he meeting with his substance abuse counselor? Was he making restitution payments?

Perhaps you are wondering how this individual ended up on probation?

Let me tell you!

One night, he and his buddies had shot up a convenience store which happened to be located just on the other side of the reservation line on that road, the only one into and out of town. This was also the only store in the community. It also served as a make-shift bank and a post office. After he and his buddies had fired off all their rounds outside by the gas pumps, the owner (so I’m told) simply walked out with his own gun and held them there till the police arrived. This was what landed the gang leader on probation. Since he had been drunk when he did it, this of course gave his attorney an angle to claim the real problem was alcohol addiction, hence the substance-abuse counseling requirements mentioned earlier. In any event, the restitution money his probation officer wanted would go to this store.

Only the gang leader hadn’t made a payment yet. He dutifully fished a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and offered it to the probation officer.

“Now you know we only take money orders.” (I’m pretty sure, I got that wording precisely.)

The gang leader shrugged and put the money back. He agreed to go get a money order and bring it back that afternoon.

Dd I mention that store also served as a bit of a make-shift bank?

He would be getting the money order from the very store he had shot up.

Yes, everyone in the room seemed a little amused by this matter, if also a bit nervous about it. It was just one of the facts of life in this very small community. A major city sat within an hour’s drive, but that wasn’t going to happen on this day. The money order would be coming from the local store, and each of us knew it.

What I wasn’t sure about, and perhaps I was the only one who wasn’t, was whether or not the hundred dollar bill had really been a mistake? Or was a ploy, an faux attempt at payment, he knew the probation officer wouldn’t accept. I had my suspicions, but I really couldn’t tell.

Next, the conversation turned toward the subject of gainful employment. The probation officer asked if the gang leader had done anything to secure a job? Had he put in any applications with any businesses? Made any inquiries?

No.

After an awkward pause, the gang leader asked if the probation officer had talked to the manager of the store in question?

It took me a moment to wrap my mind around that one, but this too made sense, in a fashion. There really weren’t a lot of jobs in the area, and everyone would know why this individual was on probation anyway. What little employment was to be had would be government work, and under the circumstances, he wouldn’t be getting any of those jobs. If he was going to get a job, this store was one of the few options viable options in the area. Possibly the only one.

So, the request made sense.

…sort of.

“Yeah,” the probation officer began, then hesitated.

“No?”

“Not just ‘no’.”

All three of us laughed.

(And I’m pretty sure I remember that part of the conversation exactly as well.)

The interview ended with a return to the subject of restitution. The gang leader agreed to go with me right to the local store and get a money order before returning to the probation office. With that, we said our goodbyes and headed out.

As we climbed into the tribal vehicle…

“So, we’re going to the store now?”

“Nah. Let’s go up this way. I’ll get you some more interviews.”

Ah, the Amusements of Polar Midnight!

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One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.

Art Alley (Rapid City)

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So, I was in Rapid City recently. I was there to attend a convention of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. It’s a great conference and a great organization. So, I was enjoying myself a great deal, already, when a thought occurred to me. I wonder if there is any street art in Rapid City?

Surely, I thought, there must be a mural or two, maybe not even a great one, but I’ll bet there is something.

Turns out the answer is ‘yes’. There is definitely street art in Rapid City. In fact, the city has an entire alley devoted to it.

(Click to embiggen!)

Eye, You, and Donald Trump

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question from the audience at one of the New England Council’s “Politics and Eggs” breakfasts in Manchester, New Hampshire November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTS6IWM

I think I found the source for Donald Trump’s approach to public speaking. There is a clear precedent for his technique.

It’s Jane Elliot!

Jane Elliot is of course the Ohio grade-school teacher made famous for a classroom exercise in which she taught her students to discriminate against each other on the basis of eye-color. If you watch her in action, you can see the elements of Donald Trump’s rhetoric style unfolding before you.

It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking for some time that I have never seen anyone lie so readily, so easily, and in the face of such clear counter-evidence. Never have I seen anyone whose praise or whose censure was so obviously a function of his own self-interest. It is as if facts have no bearing on his evaluation of anything or anyone, and the only thing that registers significance in his evaluation of the world around him is what he wants to happen. Those who support his goals are terrific, and those who oppose him are failures, sad. I keep thinking, no-one I know of has ever been so obvious about it. But no. The man has a clear role model. If you watch Elliot teaching her students to mistreat each other, it’s all there. She may have meant her exercise to warn people against this sort of thing, but I can’t help wondering of Trump didn’t watch her at some point and say to himself; “Yep! That’s exactly what I want to be.”

Elliot set out to instill prejudice in her third graders in the space of a single day, and then to reverse that prejudice the following day, before debriefing the lot of them and ending the lesson. She didn’t have a lot of time and she wasn’t the least bit subtle about it.She employed all manner of tactics to communicate contempt for the wrong-eyed children in her classroom.

You might think Elliot’s lessons less relevant to real-world politics, because, well third graders, right? But of course, Donald Trump’s own rhetoric has all the features of grade school communication. Far from a detriment, it turns out childish vocabulary and simplistic arguments are actually one of the keys to his success. With his simple words and constant repetition of basic themes, Trump leaves a very clear impression. It is the single-mindedness of Trump’s presentation that seems to resonate with his supporters, and in that respect, his approach is very much like that of Elliot.

But does the nature of the message matter?

You bet it does.

It’s not just any simplistic message that Trump offers supporters; it is a simplistic message about who is a better person; them or someone else? In this respect, his approach mirrors that of Elliot. It isn’t merely that Trump advances a message of hatred; it is that he presents that hatred in terms of a clear pay-off. You are are better than they are! That is what Trump keeps telling people (whoever you are and whoever they might be). It’s an invitation to enter a world with a clear hierarchy of value, and to enter that world on the value-laden side of that hierarchy. You don’t even need to do anything. You are already better than the many scapegoats he offers you (Muslims, Mexicans, the Media, minority activists, etc.) Trump really doesn’t call on supporters to do much more than vote for him. Their role in his his America is to be the real Americans while the rest of us take our lumps. It’s this message that survives all the messy details. It is a message not the least bit undermined by questions of fact, reason, or even the evidence of the senses. In this respect, Trump is very much like Elliot teaching half of her classroom to think of the other half as lesser people.

When I watch Elliot tell a child (at about 5:20) that a blue-eyed parent would never kick his son while using the apparent claim that a brown-eyed parent had done that very thing, I can’t help but think of Trump’s many anecdotal attacks on immigrants. It shouldn’t take much critical thinking to see past the argument, but is that more important than the invitation to be better than someone else?

Apparently not for a lot of people.

When Elliot begins telling the Brown-eyed children they can’t use the drinking fountain (at around 6:10), and when she restricts their playground privileges, she is effectively telling the blue-eyed children they are special. The things they all used to take for granted now belong only to the blue-eyed children (at least for a day). The pay-off is not substantially different from that enjoyed by an audience assure more of their kind of jobs will be created while watching others threatened by cuts, told their own health-care will be taken care of (somehow) by cutting others loose, and of course their citizenship will not be sullied by the presence of certain kinds of people. (And no legality was NEVER the issue in Trump’s new-fangled Know-nothingism) We on the left haggle over the details of these policies as if they matter. To the average Trump supporter, I do not think they do. He may be right about this or wrong about that, but what matters most to those who support them is that he keeps elevating them above someone else. He does it free of charge. They don’t have to understand anything difficult; they don’t have to work harder (at least he doesn’t say they will); they don’t even have to listen very carefully. Being better in Trump’s world is as simple as saying yes to him and his gold gilded message. In scapegoating enemies domestic and foreign, Trump is telling anyone who cares to accept him that they are special. They get to drink at the fountain. Others don’t.

When Elliot tells her children that the brown-eyed people are slow or stupid, she creates the very facts she purports to describe. Elliot noted (at 13:15) how the student performance rose or fell with the changes in their status during the course of her exercise. There is little to distinguish this from the effects of social stigma and/or poverty on groups for whom prejudice is not simply an exercise. When Trump promotes such distinctions, he generates real harm.

(At about 12:10) “Do blue-eyed people know how to sit in a chair? Very sad. Very very sad.” …this one speaks for itself.

One might think that folks would see past such a thinly disguised gambit. Elliot is working with third graders. Surely, adults would know better!

Evidently not!

In the end, this may not be a question of what people actually think. It’s a question of what narratives they circulate. We keep hearing that Steve Bannon isn’t really an antisemite or even that Donald Trump isn’t personally against homosexuals, Mexicans, women, etc., but the Trump camp and its supporters keeps producing stories denigrating to these groups and anyone who gets in their way. Like Elliot, they may know better, but like Elliot, they do it anyway.

Except for one thing.

There will be no debriefing at the end of Trump’s Presidency. There will be no great learning moment, no sudden transformation of the whole situation into a great learning lesson. Whatever cynical reasons he and his supporters may have for throwing the rest of humanity under the bus, there is little reason to believe it will stop any time soon. The only credible promise this man ever made is that he would hurt people in their name, and for whatever reason, that was reason enough for a number of people last November. We can only hope that enough people come to their senses, and that if and when they do, something can be done about it.

In the interim, the Trump administration continues its own experiment in social control. The continue teaching us to humor this man’s fantasies, and to think of ourselves as better for doing so.

Let us hope the nation as a whole can respond a little more appropriately than Jane Elliot’s third graders!

A World Without Children, or at Least a Policy Without Them!

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Can you imagine a human being, fully formed without also imagining him or her embedded in a network of social relationships? Can you (or anyone) be a person without being among others?

Suffice to say that some people have tried.

This is part of the reason for interest in feral children, and of course we sometimes read of ancient experiments depriving children of exposure to language (or in some cases any human interaction). These experiments wouldn’t get past a human subjects review panel in a modern university, but the stories are certainly interesting. A large part of that interest comes from the prospect of finding a person who became a person without any significant human interaction whatsoever. What kind of person would they be? What kind of language would they have? How would they think? These stories are long on legend and short on data, but it’s not hard to understand why people would want to investigate such things.

…even if only in a story.

The thought experiments of certain social theories are not far off from such stories. So very many people have attempted to imagine the nature of a human isolated from social connections. Chapter XIII in Thomas Hobbes’ book, The Leviathan would be a good example. So, would be the calculations of many rational choice theorists, those attempting to find the self-interest in just about any human interaction. And of course, there are always the masturbatory fantasies of Ayn Rand and her cult of ‘objectivist’ fan-boys. (Honestly, I feel kind of bad mentioning her alongside serious thinkers, even those I disagree with, but with the likes of Paul Ryan and Ran Paul claiming inspiration from Rand, one must admit the woman remains relevant.) What these approaches have in common is a rather atomistic vision of social life. They take an individual human being as a given and problematize questions about how and why that individual human does what he does in relation to others. In effect, they reduce social life to individual psychology; tey reduce social interaction to individual self interest.

The problem in each instance, is that individual psychology is intrinsically social. You can’t be a person without being in relation to someone else, because you can’t become a person without relating to someone else. You wouldn’t survive childhood without someone feeding you, clothing you, keeping you clear of the neighbor’s dog, and giving you the occasional hug. You wouldn’t be who you are if your Mom hadn’t stared into your eyes and smiled at you until you smiled back. You wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere in those early days you didn’t notice that the great-big Mom-face smiled back when you smiled yourself. You figured that out long before you figured out the words for such things, or even the difference between you and the mom-face, or anyone else. And you wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere along the way you hadn’t learned to give a damn about such things.

Even the basic problem of solipsism seems to get this whole thing wrong. We don’t start as an individual and then figure out that others might (or might not) also occupy our world. We don’t figure out how to relate to them long after we’ve decided what we want in life. We don’t decide how to treat other people only after deciding what we want ourselves. We develop our own self-image in relation to those around us, and we base on desires and goals on a sense of the world that is already populated with other human beings, some of which (hopefully) we care about. (Thank you Martin Heidegger!)

All very academic, right? (Well academic, in a loose kinda bloggetty sorta fashion.)

Except, there are moments when theoretical atomism seems to mesh with the more pointed boundaries of compassion and empathy in real life. People don’t lack for reasons not to care about this group or that kinda person. Often as not, people seem to tell us who they do give a damn about in much the same breath as those they don’t. We care about us, but we don’t give a damn about them. What constitutes the difference? Race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, …you get the idea. Any number of categories will do. It’s a pretty familiar dynamic, one with sometimes startling consequences. Those we make our own, so to speak, we may treat with great care, but those we don’t, we may visit great cruelties upon them, often without a second thought.

It doesn’t help when people looking for reasons to reduce their fucks given for others to zero can make ready use of theories breaking all our social connections up into phantom gestures of self-interest. It doesn’t help when the dominant metaphors of government programs (or the lack thereof) come straight of the sociopathic imagination. Whatever the theoretical (de-)merits of atomistic theories, they become far more critical when they become the actual basis of public policy.

I am of course talking about the free market fundamentalists among us, those who consistently reject the case for public welfare wherever they may find it, or at least whenever it might require collective effort, and especially if it means anything resembling taxes. Time and again, libertarians (and often their more conventional conservative allies) will tell us we mustn’t have this or that program because it will violate the individual rights of tax-payers and produce inefficiencies in the market. If someone poor is to receive aid from the government, someone else must pay it, and that payment will be secured by force. Then we have to deal with all the moral hazards of people changing the rational choices on the basis of programs changing the natural inclinations of supply and demand. These are real problems, to be sure, but for some these problems are also damned convenient excuses for denial of social responsibility. If they have their way, progressive taxation is out. The social safety net is a bad idea (goodbye welfare, medicaid, and medicare, among other thigns). Every regulation is suspect, including those that keep poisons out of the air we breathe and the water we drink. And of course everything from schools to the post office would be better if privatized. Why drive on on a federal highway when you could take a toll road? For such folks, it goes without saying; whatever government can do, private business can do it better.

Why?

Because private business can be described as the actions of private individuals whereas government is of course a collectivist enterprise. To fall into this mindset, we have to ignore the collectivist nature of modern corporations, but hey, if the Supreme Court says they are people, then corporations are people. So, the actions of these incredibly powerful collective entities count as the actions of private individuals in the narratives of free market fundamentalists. We are supposed to believe that single-payer insurance polices are against the free market, but insurance corporations are not. There is a difference, I know, but that difference doesn’t really support the distinctions made in public policy. One is not individual while the other is collectivist One is not a function of free market policy while the other counts as a socialist scheme.

People vary in their source material, educational background, and rhetorical strategies, but somewhere in the din of all this free market noise, I can’t help but hear the echoes of Hobbes and the others. Hell, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Pharaoh Psamtik. He is the source of one of those legendary experiments I mentioned up above. According to Herodotus, Psamtik had two children raised without any communication in order to see what language they would speak. He was disappointed, according to the legend, to find the children grew up speaking Phrygian, but of course they would actually have come out of that experiment speaking nothing at all, and being hardly human. Such an experiment would be a disaster for the children.

Is it really all that different from the social experiments urged by those seeking to deny essential support to future generations? Time and again, the brave heroes of the free market tell us that individuals must rise above their circumstances, as if poor schools, poor healthcare, and poor infrastructure could be resolved by the platitudes of a motivational speaker or the narrative arc of a Horatio Alger novel.The denial of social responsibilities thus comes with a bundle of narrative solutions, all of which work much better for the narrator than they do for any real life protagonists.

These stories particularly don’t work for children. Often as not, children don’t even make it into the narratives of libertarian rhetoric. We get the stories that deny aid to adults (why should I pay for someone who won’t work and might even be taking drugs?), and then someone else has to point out that aid also goes to children.

In the end, I can’t help thinking the failure to account for childhood is the most critical feature of libertarian approaches to policy, but its not just a theoretical failure. It’s also a very critical failure of practice. Just as atomistic theories of individualism could never account for the way one becomes a fully functioning human being, the practitioners of atomistic policy cannot, and will not, account for the needs of children through public policy. They won’t even account for the needs of adult women who produce these children, not in any realistic manner. The wealthy can of course throw money at the problem, and damn the rest of us to Hell anyway, so it seems is the only real answer we will ever get from the free market fundamentalists. Of course, there are other boundaries beyond which social responsibilities can easily be denied.

If the atomistic mindset is inadequate, the consequences of its inadequacies do not fall upon all of us equally. Some need the help more than others, and the denial of it serves some better than others. Whatever the strengths and weakness of free market fundamentalism, it will always have a little extra appeal for those in power.

Some people are just a little more obvious about this than others.

When Truth Can’t Handle You!

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“You can’t handle the truth!”

It’s a popular response in political debate, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful denunciation (delivered in the midst of an amazing performance), a line that serves both to deny someone the right to an honest answer and to place responsibility for that denial on those to whom the truth is denied. It’s the sort of response one could follow with a mic drop. Really it is.

What people seem to forget is that this is a line issued by a character who really is lying in defense of a crime he really did commit. When you keep that in mind, it puts efforts to use the line in real life in a whole new perspective.

When Farmers Plant Cadillacs

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Um… hello (Moni Pic)

I was so happy with what my girlfriend gave me for a post about Monument Valley, that I asked her to write this post about Cadillac Ranch, which we also visited this December. This is what she said;

No!

…sometimes the magic works. Sometimes she says ‘no’.

Anyway, she did send me a couple of her pics to add to the post, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

…but I still do.

We did stop by Cadillac Ranch this December. Arrived just at the golden hour and got a few pics. As this is basically a picture post, anyway, I think we’ll just get right to it.

(Click to embiggen)

Added a couple pics from other parts of Texas as well.

(You know the drill!)

Monument Valley

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16143701_10211829276472421_7117143568644666373_oSo my girlfriend and I were talking the other night and she’s asking me about my blog. I told her I should write something about our visit to Monument Valley this December, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about it. I mean, I could say the usual stuff about it, …Blah, blah, …John Wayne, …blah blah Roadrunner cartoons – all very done-before. But I tell Moni I don’t have anything inspiring to put in with our pictures. So, I tell her she should write the post for me. Moni says she can’t write. I know she’s lying. So, I keep telling her she’s going to have to write the post for me, because I’m mean like that. Finally she says something like “you know what I think of Monument Valley?”

…and I’m like “got her!”

“What do you think of Monument Valley?”

She tells me it’s too stupid; she doesn’t want to say it.

I insist.

We repeat this about 3 times.

Finally, she starts talking. I grab a sheet of paper and start scribbling as fast as I can. These aren’t quite her exact words, but they are pretty close:

mac9gpvwTo me, it was a go deal to go to those places, because that’s what America was to me when I was living in Mexico City. That’s the picture that I saw when I thought about America. It’s been a very long time, but it was still a very big deal for me. It took me back to when I was a kid and I was just thinking about coming to America.

I think Moni needs to write more of my blog posts.

(Click to embiggen)