David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “November, 2017”

That Pesky Thing Called Reality

In a previous post, I discussed the way that science deals with truth.  There’s truth with a capital T – eternal, universal certainty.  And there’s truth with a small t – provisional truth, open to new information or new perspectives.  Science deals with the latter.  And therein lies an irony.  Because truth, with a small t, is very, very important in science.


Precisely because science places tremendous value on truth, it is EXTREMELY careful at every point in its process, from the acquisition of data to the development of broad conclusions.  There is such a thing as bad data, and science recognizes this.  That’s why we have brutal, rigorous methods to minimize bad data – quantification, replication, double-blind protocols, and so on.   But at some point, we have to put our foot down and say, these are facts.  There is such a thing as pathological skepticism.  Very few people, scientists or otherwise, refuse modern medical treatment because they don’t trust the mountain of data backing it up.

Most people (including me) have jobs, bills, car trouble, and retirement concerns.  Most people face real-life struggles.  When national surveys ask Americans what they worry about, very few of them say, “Why, nothing at all.”  American household debt is at record highs.  This alone stresses many people out.  Americans, even when they are pretty well off, worry about their financial future – because they know full well that the safety net is weak in America.


But for a small minority, basic survival is simply not a concern, and never has been.  Take a household that pulls in $1,000,000 a year.  They could easily set aside $500,000 a year.  In 10 years that would come to 5 MILLION DOLLARS.  Any reputable stock broker could take that money and make an average annual gain of $500,000 PER YEAR.  In another 10 years that would come to 13 MILLION DOLLARS.  Even a decent money market account pays at least 1% interest – a guaranteed annual income of at least $130,000 without raising a finger.

In fact, I have been quite conservative.  With a little financial sense, the household could make much more than this.  My point is that for a fortunate few, survival is not an issue.  Even if they “lose” everything, they can’t really lose the basics – things that most of us worry about and struggle every day with.  For these few, what most of us call reality is something that others worry about.  They dine in the finest restaurants, stay in the finest hotels, buy expensive clothes, they always fly first class.  You won’t see them at Wal-Mart or Dollar Tree.


It’s difficult for such people to really understand what most of us call reality.  But some of them at least make the attempt.  Franklin Roosevelt proposed a second Bill of Rights:

  1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation
  2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation
  3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living
  4. The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad
  5. The right of every family to a decent home
  6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health
  7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment
  8. The right to a good education

For a person who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, this is pretty strong stuff – that every person has the right to the basic necessities, a decent home, adequate medical care, and a secure retirement.  That they have a RIGHT to these things, as much as they have the right to speak their mind, worship or not worship as they choose, and to enjoy due process of law.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt was exceptional.  That’s understandable, because it’s difficult for any of us to really understand something that we don’t experience directly.  Which brings me back to my basic point.  Many journalists have a tough time getting their brains around our current moron-in-chief.  What does he really believe?  Why does he contradict himself so much?  Why does he insist on shooting himself in the foot so often?


Most journalists, regardless of their ideology, have a basic attachment to reality.  That’s their job – to report on what’s happening in the world.  But our moron-in-chief doesn’t.  He never has.  He really doesn’t see the world in terms of what most of us call reality, because it doesn’t affect him.  He DOES see the world as a contest.  His skin is very thin.

He is in fact very much like his “nemesis,” Kim Jong-un, the current dictator of North Korea.  Kim is extremely thin-skinned and very much sees life as a contest.  The only difference is that he IS able to control his people’s access to information and succeeds in maintaining a powerful cult of personality.  There is no free press to reinforce reality.


For both men, truth, with either a capital T or small t, does not exist.  Of course, they both realize that it’s important to say “stuff.”  But what “stuff” you say is completely and totally manipulative.  There is no “reality anchor.”

It might seem strange that since most of us DO have to deal with reality, anyone whose world view is so divorced from reality can ever reach a position of power.  But consider this.  For the last 25 years, crime rates have been dropping in America.  Yet every year, consistently, most Americans report that crime is increasing.  In terms of actual risk to your person, terrorism is virtually inconsequential.  Yet Americans rate terrorism as one of their biggest concerns.  Manufacturing and resource extraction encompass only about 10% of American jobs.  Yet manufacturing fetishism is absolutely pervasive.


Earlier this year, psychologist Andrew Shtulman authored an article entitled “In Public Understanding of Science, Alternative Facts are the Norm.”  He pointed out that 80 PERCENT of Americans support mandatory labels on FOOD CONTAINING DNA.  It stands to reason that people are afraid of “genetically modified foods” if they don’t even understand that VIRTUALLY ALL FOOD CONTAINS GENETIC MATERIAL – DNA.

Considerably less than half of Americans can name the 3 branches of the federal government.  About a quarter of Americans think the sun orbits the earth.  Almost 30% cannot find the Pacific Ocean on a map.  It’s one thing to be “grounded in reality,” in the sense that you have bills to pay.  But when you’re ignorant of even the basics of how your government works, when it comes to politics, when it comes to issues of education, finance, health, and security, when it comes to making a choice that has an enormous effect on your well-being – well, that’s where a different reality takes hold.


Recently, in a survey of American beliefs about discrimination, 55% of white Americans stated that discrimination against whites exists.  Yet in the same survey, these people were asked whether they themselves have been discriminated against.  Less than 20% said yes.  Even for those who said yes, many could not come up with a specific example.  Why?  Because on issue after issue, we see that people’s “facts” come not from their own personal experience, but from the media.  Their actual perception of reality, the risks they face, the consequences of their choices, are distorted by their diet of so-called news.

In such an environment, it’s not surprising that someone can come along who is completely divorced from reality, tell them what they want to hear, and garner their support.  That he flip-flops on specifics is quite irrelevant.  That he lies blatantly is quite irrelevant.  What’s important is that he reinforces their prejudices, their parochialisms, and their media-distorted world view.


Journalists look at polls with astonishment, when they report that Trump supporters rate him as honest.  But being honest, to many people, means telling them what they want to hear.  If I believe that white males are at a disadvantage, and you tell me the opposite is true, you’re just being “dishonest.”  You’re being “politically correct.”  And don’t try to confuse me with “facts.”  I have my own, provided by “honest” media.

I used to work in supermarkets.  Many times in training sessions, we were reminded that perception is reality.  It doesn’t matter how clean the store actually is, how good the food actually is, or how fast the cashiers actually are.  What matters is how the customers perceive these things, and this can be highly distorted.  If one of the toilets is a mess, or one employee needs a shave, it can dramatically affect people’s perceptions of everything else.  If people’s perceptions of something so mundane and straightforward as this can be highly distorted, it’s not surprising that their perceptions of broader issues like education, health care, finance, and security can be incredibly warped.  Especially when the educational system fails to do its job.


This is exactly why someone like Kim Jong-un can maintain his grip in a country like North Korea.  When “reality” is what the media tells you it is, and you don’t have an independent press…well, other “realities” just have to step aside.  But it won’t work here.  In America, that pesky thing called reality has a way of intruding.

Economic False Dichotomies

Many Americans think of America as a capitalist country, and it is.  But the truth is, there aren’t many countries in the world that don’t have capitalist economies.  North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela.  Even China can’t really be called a communist country any more, not in an economic sense.  Most countries, including the United States, have what are called mixed economies – a combination of capitalism and socialism.


If we look at government spending as a percentage of a country’s total output, America is in fact far from the bottom.  It ranks 47th among 142 countries, with government spending contributing 38.3% of total output.  But most of the countries that rank below America in government spending are third world countries – Nigeria, for example, is at the very bottom of the list, with government spending contributing only 12.6% of output.  Most European countries, including all of the Scandinavian countries, as well as Australia and Canada, rank higher.  Of all first world countries, Finland ranks the highest, with government spending contributing a whopping 58% of total output.

Europeans often have a hard time understanding why Americans insist on conflating socialism with communism.  This has everything to do with the history of organized labor in America versus Europe, which in turn has everything to do with the issue of race.  From the early years of organized labor in America, labor leaders tried to bring blacks and whites together.  This created an opportunity for business owners to attack the labor movement.  Anti-communism, anti-unionism, and racism were a package.  Right up to the 1960’s, the black civil rights movement was tied to communism by the propagandists.


European countries, particularly the Scandinavian countries, never had to deal with this.  It’s harder to turn workers against one another when they LOOK like each other.  After World War II, western Europe began to adopt universal health care.  First England, then the Scandinavian countries.  It took longer for the rest of Europe to follow suit, but over the years, country after country adopted some form of universal health care.  Why did this happen there and not in America?  Because Swedish workers don’t think of other Swedish workers as “them.”  They are all “us.”  Norwegians are all Norwegians, Danes are all Danes.  There is no “them” who don’t deserve what “we” have.  They are all “us.”

But in America, there is absolutely us and them.  Even the President of the United States is not immune.  Birtherism is an attempt to paint Barack Obama as illegitimate, as an “other.”  The divide between us and them has been played by propagandists in America for more than a century, with great success.  It has been wedge against organized labor all along, dealing a blow to solidarity.  Communistic Jews are conspiring with blacks to take wealth away from hard-working whites.  It is a message that has been hammered home, decade after decade, often overtly until the 1970’s, more covertly since then.


Power comes from numbers.  Without organization, workers have no power.  In America, we bicker over the minimum wage.  But in Scandinavian countries there is no minimum wage!  They don’t need one.  Powerful labor unions negotiate good wages with business owners.  In America, we bicker over health care.  But England, Denmark, and Finland have had universal health care for more than 50 YEARS.  In America, we have paltry 501k’s and a pathetic Social Security system.  But in Norway they have the Sovereign Wealth Fund, worth more than a trillion dollars, to provide excellent retirement.


Faced with criticism of America’s disgraceful wages, pitiful health care system, and pathetic retirement programs, propagandists quickly reach for North Korea, Cuba, or Venezuela.  You don’t want America to end up like them do you?  Government-run programs are a disaster.  It’s communism!  Never, ever, under any circumstances, are you to examine countries like Finland, Denmark, Norway, or the Netherlands.  Don’t look at their wages, don’t look at their health outcomes, don’t look at their retirement programs.  Don’t look at their rankings on global surveys, including those of the CONSERVATIVE Heritage Foundation (in other words, don’t look here).  Don’t look at their rankings on the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index (don’t look here, nothing to see).  And above all, do not, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, look at where they fall on the Happiness Index.

Don’t look at these numbers!

Country                       Happiness Index

Norway                                   7.537

Denmark                                 7.522

Iceland                                    7.504

Switzerland                             7.494

Finland                                    7.469

Netherlands                             7.377

Canada                                      7.316

New Zealand                          7.314

Australia                                  7.284

Sweden                                   7.284

Israel                                       7.213

Costa Rica                               7.079

Austria                                    7.006

United States                         6.993

Is this the best we can do?

There’s a certain mentality that’s very common among conservatives, and some openly acknowledge it.  It’s anti-utopianism.  It’s the belief that people are fundamentally flawed, so there’s a limit to how just a society can possibly be.  That the best we can hope for is a balance of power – that somehow, each of us engaging in the pursuit of our own selfish interests will balance out.  We can’t do any better, because people are fundamentally selfish.


The western notion of justice contains a strong element of balance.  It goes all the way back to ancient Rome and even before.  Lady Justice is a direct descendant of Justitia, usually depicted holding scales.  The Old Testament notion of an eye for an eye actually derives from the even older Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.  (Contrary to popular notion, this provision was intended to LIMIT retribution – it really should be read as ONLY an eye for an eye.)  This principle of balance assumes that some people will do harm to others, and says that there should be recompense or retribution to fit the crime.  You might say it’s the principle of 2 wrongs making a right.

This ancient notion of justice is really just vengeance repackaged.  Instead of an individual pursuing retribution, society as a whole imposes the balance.  The principle is the same – 2 wrongs making a right.  The Gospel, however, suggests some truly revolutionary – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  So revolutionary, in fact, that many people would say this is not justice at all.  Where is the justice in one person doing harm while another does only good?


The answer goes back to the old saying about the 2 wolves.  There are 2 wolves.  One is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, ego.  The other is hope, humility, kindness, generosity, love.  They are constantly at war.  Which one wins?  The one you feed.  Suppose we have 2 people.  Both of them are very poor.  One has 2 goats, the other has 4 goats.  Neither of them has access to clean water, indoor plumbing, or refrigeration.  Now suppose we give these 2 people chlorinated water, sewerage systems, electrical power, and refrigerators.  But still, one has 2 goats, the other 4.  Better yet, suppose we give them good-paying jobs, free health care, and secure retirement.  But still, one has 2 goats, the other 4.  WHO CARES?  Why are we quibbling over goats?  Because we assume life is a zero-sum game.  There are only 6 goats to be had, so let’s squabble over them, instead of opening our minds to the possibility that both people can have much more.

This illustrates that the balance notion of justice can be applied to positives too.  If I do something good for you, I should expect something in return.  This is not substantially different from an exchange of negatives.  If I provide you with something, I should expect something in return.  If I take something from you, you should be able to take something from me.  Either way, it’s an exchange.  It’s really a business transaction, a zero-sum game.  There is no provision for BOTH of us to gain.  Breaking out of the zero-sum game of balance, we discover the win-win revolution.  If EVERYONE is better off, well, arguably, that’s what true justice is.  This is achieved by positivity – a rejection of the notion of 2 wrongs making a right, in favor of 1 right making another right, and another and another.  Instead of being stuck in the closed loop of balance, we climb the stairway of positivity.

But going back to the notion of justice as balance, we see lots of examples of forced equality built on the notion of balance.  We expect that a murderer will be brought to justice whether he is rich or poor.  We have one person, one vote.  We say that no one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law.  Equality has always been a big component of justice in America.  But the founding fathers did not trust the masses to govern themselves, and they certainly didn’t trust people in power to be free from corruption.


Thus we have the concept of checks and balances.  It’s assumed that unchallenged power will drift toward corruption.  So power is distributed amongst power centers, which balance each other’s influence.  But notice something.  It’s only because this system IMPOSES a degree of equality among these centers of power that the system works.  Congress makes laws, but they must be signed by the President, unless Congress has overwhelming unity.  The President appoints Supreme Court justices, but they have to be approved by the Senate.  The Supreme Court has final say on the interpretation of the Constitution, but the Constitution can be amended.  The power of the majority is balanced by the Bill of Rights, which protects the rights of the minority.  The power of government to propagandize is balanced by the power of the free press.

My point is that it’s not simply a free-for-all.  It is in fact a carefully crafted system that ensures a degree of equality among these power centers.  Even so, it all operates on a basic assumption – that neither ordinary people nor government leaders can be trusted not to violate the rights of others.  That we need the balance of power to protect us from each other.

The notion of justice as balance depends on a curious inconsistency on the subject of interdependence.  On the one hand, it assumes that we are all independent of one another.  If we aren’t, then my actions must inevitably feed back to me, so I can’t hurt you without hurting myself.  But if we’re truly independent, then my actions have no effect on you, and the problem ceases to exist.  The degree to which we are interconnected is precisely the degree to which my actions, positive or negative, will feed back to myself.


We delude ourselves with the fantasy of rugged individualism, in a highly interconnected world, because we want to have it all – the unfettered, unrestricted life of independence, plus all of the advantages of a civilized, interconnected society.  Today, we rely on others profoundly, often in ways that we hardly notice.  We are able to buy incredible technologies at absurdly low prices because of the economics of mass production and globalization.  We are connected to vast computer networks that control everything from our financial transactions to our power systems.  We take for granted things like social security and car insurance, which only function because huge numbers of people are constantly paying into those systems.

The reason car insurance is mandatory in America has everything to do with interconnectedness.  Our society discovered that without mandates, people bickered over whose fault an accident was, and ALL OF US ended up paying, in the form of enormous court costs.  The country is facing the same kind of issue now with health insurance.  Countries that spend far, far less on health care than America have BETTER HEALTH OUTCOMES.


Put simply, almost everything we do affects others.  If you get sick, everyone pays more.  So it’s in everyone’s interest to keep you healthy.  If you drive recklessly, everyone pays more.  So it’s in everyone’s interest for you to drive safely.  To many Americans, this seems like an imposition on their personal freedom.  But if you’re sick, or don’t have enough for retirement, or worried about losing your house, how free are you?  Is this really the best we can do?

Our failure to see the profound interconnectedness of our society blinds us to unavoidable realities.  When we hurt other people, we’re hurting ourselves.  When we help other people, we’re helping ourselves.  It isn’t a zero sum game.  On the contrary.  It’s win-win or lose-lose.  Notice that I didn’t say we can all enjoy an extravagant life style, eating lobster soaked in cheese sauce every day.  But we can be free of worry over paying bills, losing our savings because we get sick, or having a secure retirement.  Is that utopian?


I don’t think so.  It is in fact inevitable.  Unless we suddenly decide to slam the brakes on the march of technology and disconnect ourselves from each other, we will have to face a world of increasing interdependence.  We already live in a world in which machines do the overwhelming amount of the physical work of production.  We merely delude ourselves that it is human “hard work” that drives the engine of economic growth.  This nonsense allows some of us to believe that our labor is supporting the lazy habits of other people.  As machines and computer programs become much more capable, this fiction will become impossible to sustain.  At some point almost everyone will notice that it is all about ownership of the machines and facilities, not “work.”  The whole notion of “work” will be revolutionized.

It is seldom appreciated how much the notion of work affects our politics.  Jobs, jobs, jobs.  Our whole economic system assumes that there are human owners using human workers to make products for sale to human consumers.  It assumes that all of these humans are jostling for a limited pie of wealth.  It ignores the vast non-human infrastructure and production system that is the real basis for wealth.  People don’t need “jobs.”  They need income.  At some point, probably sooner than we think, this will become painfully obvious.


Our economic system is driven by notions of who deserves to have money, and how much.  It is an unspoken “truth” that we simply accept, every day.  We operate within a system without ever questioning that system.  We simply assume it’s the best we can do.  When machine intelligence destroys our obsolete notions of “work,” this will collapse.  How do we determine who deserves how much money, when machines are doing all the work?  We will be left with the simple, sobering reality that the well-being of others has everything to do with our own.

Does this mean that the American ideal of rugged individualism is doomed?  Not at all.  We have one person, one vote.  This forced political equality doesn’t stop us from being very different from one another in all kinds of ways.  Some people like to cover themselves with tattoos.  Some people like to live in the country.  Some people like rap music.  Some people are atheists.  Some people like crawfish.  Some people shave their heads.  Economic equality doesn’t stop people from being individuals.  In fact, one could argue that when people don’t have to worry about putting food on the table, or paying for their health care, or having a secure retirement, it frees them to express their own individuality.


What is doomed is the notion that if you want economic security, you need to step on other people to get it.  That if you’re not willing to do this, you don’t deserve it.  What is doomed is the fantasy that we are all independent from each other.  That my greed and my avarice are nobody’s business but my own.  What is doomed is the notion that the pursuit of soulless materialism is the end-all-be-all of human existence.  That life is dog-eat-dog, and this is the best we can do.  We can do much better.  And we will.

The Ground Rules

Recently I read a very interesting article in Slate called “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts.”  It was authored by Jess Zimmerman, who used to work for a non-partisan fact-checking web site.  Despite the title, Zimmerman isn’t actually arguing that we should give up on facts.  In fact, in the final paragraph, she writes “So let the journalists continue to fact-check, harder than ever before.”  What she’s IS saying is that fact-checking is not going to cause people in the grip of ideology to let go of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.”  That we have to dig deep.


I agree.  In any meaningful discussion, there are always ground rules, and humans, even logical, reasonable ones, are not motivated by logic and reason.  In order to have a meaningful give and take, we first have to agree on the ground rules.  And doing that often requires that we burrow down to what is really motivating the discussion.  Otherwise we are just spinning our wheels, talking past one another.

Rationalization is everywhere.  If a flat-earther can give me a highly detailed exposition, meticulously chipping away the incredible mountain of evidence that demonstrates that the earth is not flat, what chance do we have against an ideologue?  We have to get at the insecurities, biases, delusions, and deep-seated dogmas that really motivate people.  And some people are probably unreachable.


Many, however, are not.  Time and again, we have seen beliefs that were broadly legitimized and highly entrenched yield to the momentum of history.  The divine right of kings.  The subjugation of women.  The ownership of human beings.  It isn’t about completely eliminating such notions.  That may well be impossible, or nearly so.  It’s about destroying their legitimacy, which gives them political power.

I could give you lots of detailed, seemingly reasonable arguments about why a Muslim ban is desirable, or why abortion should be outlawed, or why comprehensive sex education is a bad idea.  The problem is, if I’m not willing to be genuinely open to counterarguments and real-world evidence, what’s the point of you discussing these things with me?  The discussion isn’t actually about what the discussion seems to be about.  It’s about something much deeper.


This blog is about promoting critical thinking, a fundamental driver of science, and therefore technology.  Critical thinking is one of the basic ground rules of science.  But it’s much more broadly applicable.  It’s not just a way of doing science.  It’s an approach to everything.  Without a commitment to it, I believe discussion is largely pointless.  It’s only because scientists agree to follow the ground rules that we make progress in science.  For centuries these rules were ignored.  Science didn’t exist, and technological, not to mention social, advancement was glacial.

Reality has a way of intruding over the long term.  Yet for thousands of years, human beings lived without democracy, most children died very young, and people were at the mercy of diseases like cholera and smallpox.  Progress only came about because people agreed on certain ground rules.  They don’t call the late 18th century the Age of Reason for nothing.  The natural human tendency toward tribalism and exploitation can only be countered with a commitment to reject dogma for its own sake.


In our time, overt exploitation at the barrel of a gun has largely been replaced by manipulation and propaganda.  Most people cling tightly to their delusions, obsessions, and fears, leaving them vulnerable to those who tell them what they want to hear.  But I firmly believe that genuine democracy is coming.  The momentum of technology has become too great, and the manufacture of consent simply can’t keep up.  There will either be a paroxysm that will bring it all crashing down, or an awakening to the necessity of abandoning infantile prejudices and parochialisms.  I think it will be the latter.

What is decency?

A friend of mine once had a list of words and phrases that she scolded her children for saying.  Some of them were words most Americans think of as profanity.  But one particular phrase on the list struck me – “Shut up.”  She considered the phrase “shut up” to be as offensive as any nugget of profanity.


One of the main characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now is Colonel Walter Kurtz.  Kurtz has gone rogue, waging his own independent war in Vietnam and sending images of his activities out to the world.  So his superiors want him dead.  But even they acknowledge that he had been “one of the finest officers this country has ever produced.  He was brilliant, he was outstanding, in every way.  And he was a good man, too.”  But after seeing a pile of hacked-off little arms from children that had been inoculated for polio, Kurtz meanders off to a very dark place.  And later, we hear Kurtz himself say, “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes, because it’s obscene!”

A lot of the message of Apocalypse Now has to do with the notion of decency and the hypocrisy surrounding it.  The Vietnam War was certainly a focal point of such considerations.  The famous line “We must destroy this village to save it” is perhaps the ultimate expression of that.


For much of American history, the notion of decency was associated with certain taboos, particularly sexual ones.  The mere existence of human sexual organs and secondary sex characters was treated as part of the realm of indecency.  There was no decent word for penis.  You simply pretended it didn’t exist.  In a line from another Vietnam era film, Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic’s mother screams at him, “Don’t say penis in this house!”

The sexual revolution was supposed to change all that, and it did have a big effect.  But prudishness is still alive and well in America, and sex negativity even more so.  The contrast between the widespread acceptance of violence in movies and the harsh reaction to open sexuality is a good illustration.  The word indecent is still strongly associated with sex in many American minds.  But much of the focus on sexual taboos has shifted.


In 1977, the National Federation for Decency was founded.  At the time it was quite focused on pornography and sexual content in television and movies.  By 1988 it has changed its name to the American Family Association, and its focus has also changed over the years.  Today it has a very broad agenda, encompassing virtually every aspect of the culture war – homosexual marriage, abortion, gun rights, school prayer, public assistance programs, and on and on.  Much of this has little if anything to do with religion, and nothing to do with sexuality.  But it has everything to do with culture and political ideology.

The shift away from decency is a reflection of the fact that conservative culture warriors do not think of issues like gun control, welfare, drug abuse, and crime as “decency” issues.  They never have.  Decency is about sex, pure and simple.  When you move away from the topic of sex, their use of the word decency fades away.  But the word decent has always encompassed much more than that.


Take the sentence, “At least he had the decency to confess.”  Or how about this?  “You should make amends.  It’s the decent thing to do.”  Or notice the following:  “He didn’t have the decency to let me know he was doing that.”  None of this has anything to do with sex.  What does it have to do with?  Consideration for others.  Integrity.  Respect.  A sense of fairness.  When someone mocks a person with a disability, we immediately recognize the behavior as indecent.  When someone goes the extra mile to help his fellows, we immediately recognize the behavior as decent.

One of the most famous historical examples of what I’m talking about happened during the Battle of Fredericksburg, in the winter of 1862.  The confederate line was entrenched behind a stone wall.  The union sent wave after wave of infantry charges against the position, which were mowed down.  By the evening, thousands of union troops lay suffering and dying in the field in front of the stone wall.  The next morning a confederate sergeant, Richard Kirkland, made his way out into the field to give the suffering men drinks of water, warm clothing, and blankets.


Kirkland had asked his superior officer if he could show a white flag while he rendered aid to the enemy soldiers.  The officer told him no.  So he responded, “All right sir, I’ll take my chances.”  The union soldiers across the field quickly realized what he was doing and held their fire.  Today, Kirkland is remembered as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.”  His actions are virtually the definition of decency, if decency means anything at all.

The Gospels contain words that express decency in many ways.  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.”  “And why thy beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”  “Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  These are not easy words to live by.  Decency is not the easy path.  It’s much easier to create taboos about forbidden words, to embrace tribalism and be a warrior in the culture war.


The hypocrisy of embracing sexual taboos and forbidden words while endorsing dog-eat-dog selfishness and violent power projection was undoubtedly one of the big motivators of the counterculture movements of the 1960’s.  Rather ironically, the American Family Association is now classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  How did decency morph into hate?  It didn’t.  When your idea of decency is built on tribalism and intolerance..well, your decency is what I call hate.


The Gospel also says, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”  It’s easy to say stuff.  As I said, it’s easy to create lists of forbidden words, to say all of the “right” things and none of the “wrong” things.  But your actions speak for you.  Good manners do not make you a decent person.  Consideration and respect are ACTIONS, not words.  The American ideals of justice, equality, and tolerance are much more than just words.  Decency is the antithesis of barbarism.  Our country, and our world, still have a ways to go.

The Conflict Imperative

Ever read a novel or short story that contained no conflict?  Me neither.  Conflict is one of the most basic driving forces in fiction.  Without it, fiction is quite simply boring.  And it could be argued that life without conflict is boring too.  After all, what is scientific exploration, but a struggle against ignorance?  A life in which we knew all of the answers would be a life of stagnation.  We need something to struggle against.


In one of the older Simpson’s episodes, Marge successfully mobilizes a critical mass of viewers to influence the makers of the incredibly violent “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon to tone down the gratuitous violence.  The result is a cartoon showing Itchy and Scratchy happily sharing lemonade, rocking side by side on a porch.  It hardly needs to be said that the children of Springfield, en masse, turn off their televisions and go outside to play.  Entertainment without conflict is about as exciting as – well, watching 2 people drinking lemonade on the porch.

Newspapers and magazines, like books, are ACTIVE media.  In order to get your news from such sources, you must be an active participant.  This gives print a very different psychology than television, which is passive.  In print media, you are already “grabbed,” in the sense that when you begin to read a story, you have already committed yourself to focus on the content.  But you can sit in front of a television and still not be “grabbed.”


My point is that there is an entertainment imperative with television that does not exist with print.  Television has to grab the viewer.  If it doesn’t, the viewer will change the channel.  It’s not enough that television be entertaining most of the time.  It has to be entertaining ALL of the time.  That includes the so-called “news.”  What’s entertaining is conflict.  Not deliberation.  Not compromise.  Not pragmatism.

Every day, out of sight of the average American, there are conferences in America relating to public policy.  Health, education, security, infrastructure, communication, technology, conservation, economic growth, regulation, the list goes on.  Presentations are given, discussions are had, details are hashed out.  And the thing is, these conferences are full of pragmatism.  The reason is simple.  If you want to justify a policy in front of a bunch of people who are familiar with the issue, you have to have knowledge to back up what you’re spouting.  You can’t ignore history, you can’t ignore evidence.


Health care is a good example.  People don’t go to health conferences and spout know-nothing ideology, because the audiences are full of people who ARE familiar with the subject.  You are not going to get very far trying to argue that vaccination causes autism, or that nutritional supplements can cure cancer, in front of health professionals.  The television screen, of course, is an entirely different matter.

Television “news” channels are full of know-nothing talking heads who arrived where they are because of their ability to entertain.  Television “news” is entertainment, and entertainment requires conflict.  In the world of policy, that conflict is provided by ideology.  The increasing polarization of American politics is absolutely a product of television (and radio) blather-fests. Governing is becoming increasingly difficult, especially at the national level, because governing is about compromise and pragmatism.  But television won’t have it.  Television demands ideological conflict.


Increasingly, it doesn’t matter how a particular issue impacts our lives.  What matters is how much passion and conflict are generated.  Television is more than happy to focus on culture war issues like confederate symbols and bathroom access, as opposed to tax policy or education, because of the emotions involved.  Tribalism, in whatever form, is favored.  As Americans as a whole become less religious, ideology is assuming the same role.

All of this is unstable and won’t continue for very long.  Television itself has a questionable future, at least the kind of television Americans have been accustomed to for 70 years.  Increasingly, Americans are abandoning passive boob-tube television in favor of streaming video and social media.  It might be argued that this will produce even more polarization, and it might.  But there will be a crucial difference.


In the early 20th century, newspapers made no pretense of being unbiased.  They were openly partisan and ideological.  Their readers understood this.  In the mid 20th century this began to change.  Newspapers began to realize that by focusing on a particular ideology or party, they were limiting their circulation.  By being “unbiased” they could all sell more newspapers.  And this is exactly what happened.

Of course, it was at this point that broadcast television made its appearance.  It too presented itself as unbiased, and has throughout.  This has produced a mentality of trust in the minds of viewers.  Yet television “news” channels have slowly become increasingly partisan and ideological, pulling their viewers along with them.  The result is an increasingly polarized viewing public, each group still believing that it is watching unbiased news.


We may well see the pretense of unbiased media disappear soon, and all media revert to the kind of ideological journalism that was once common in the newspaper world.  Some would argue that this is all for the good, because with the pretense removed, viewers and readers will no longer rely on trust, but will view all news sources with skepticism.  And when so-called “news” is understood to be biased, one way or another, it will be examined in that context.

100 years ago, newspapers were often controlled by political parties.  Everyone understood this.  The person the Pulitzer Prize is named for, Joseph Pulitzer, owned the New York World, an openly and passionately progressive paper.  On the other hand, there was the New York Herald Tribune, an openly conservative paper.    Partisan journalism was accepted and understood as such.  Yet the diversity of papers in big cities meant that it wasn’t just about liberal or conservative.  Many points of view were presented.  For example, before World War II, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal took an isolationist stance toward the war, while the New York Herald Tribune was supportive of American involvement.  Yet both papers were pro-Republican.


Certain issues have long polarized the ideological camps in America.  Abortion for example.  Immigration.  Gun control.  Government regulation.  But others do not.  Trade for example.  Some of the most ardent protectionists are very progressive – others are very conservative.  Another example is education.  Both conservatives and liberals support strong education standards and standardized tests.  Other conservatives and liberals oppose them.  But the media’s conflict imperative has increasingly led the American populace to divide into ideological camps.  Any position, such as on trade, that doesn’t fall naturally into these camps will be dragged into one or the other.

To some extent this is also a product of our winner-take-all political system.  Some other countries have proportional representation.  In such a system is it much more difficult for 2 parties to dominate.  In Finland, for example, members of no less than 8 political parties currently occupy positions in Parliament.  The Centre Party has the most seats but these are only 25% of the total.  The current government is a coalition – 3 different parties occupy top positions in the executive branch.  The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister belong to 2 different parties.  The inevitable result is a give and take of ideas and a series of compromises.  Parties in power often end up somewhere in the middle ideologically.  The more extreme parties, like the Communist Party of Finland, or the Christian Democrats of Finland, tend to be marginalized.


12 years ago, in 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives was 53.3% Republican.  Only 4 years later, in 2009, it had already swung to being 59.1% Democratic.  Only 2 years after that, in 2011, it had swung back to being 55.6% Republican.  In the last 12 years the U.S. Senate has gone from being strongly Republican to strongly Democratic and back to strongly Republican, and will likely go back to being majority Democratic soon.  Senators like John McCain long for a time when the Senate actually functioned in a bipartisan manner.  Congressional gridlock has become the norm, and presidents increasingly operate using executive orders which are swiftly reversed by their successors.  These wild swings and reversals are a product of a polarized electorate and a winner-take-all, 2-party system.

As America becomes increasingly secular, ideology becomes much like religious identity – “I’m a conservative.”  Much like “I’m a Baptist,” or “I’m a Catholic.”  Like religion, ideology becomes a collection of unquestioned doctrines, because it isn’t about the doctrines, it’s about belonging to a tribe.  Tribalism is a powerful human predisposition, and people are often willing to go along with specific doctrines, whether they agree with them or not, for the sake of group solidarity.


A return to openly partisan journalism might be the best short-term solution.  At least then, no one would be able to argue that their position was some sort of default.  In the longer term, it goes back to education.  Critical thinking.  More and more I am convinced that our education system needs a formalized and emphasized critical thinking curriculum, starting at the very beginning of the education process.  Of course, this too will brush right up against strong resistance from ideologues.  But that’s the point.

The Crisis of Empathy

In previous posts (here and here), I discussed our strong tendency to hold others responsible for their actions, UNLESS we can put a label on them, assigning them to a “type” that warrants our sympathy.  As with so many things in life, it’s an oversimplification, but this particular oversimplification is particularly pernicious.  Just as physical health is a matter of degree, mental health exists along gradients.  There is no magic line at which an individual deserves to be assigned a “disorder” or “syndrome.”


This is why, increasingly, psychiatry is using the term “spectrum” to describe syndromes – autism spectrum, for example.  Psychiatry is in the process of abandoning schizophrenia as a diagnosis, acknowledging that many people who have been considered “normal” exhibit behaviors and/or personalities that could be classified as schizophrenic.  It is all a matter of degree.  Our society, however, has its own folk psychology, and this has everything to do with our politics.  The notion of personal responsibility is extremely important in our politics.

Notice that, by and large, we don’t apply this to physical health.  If someone gets diabetes, or cancer, or has a stroke, we don’t say, “You shouldn’t have gotten that.  You are responsible for your own health.  You should stay healthy.  You must accept the consequences of your inability to stay healthy.  You will be punished.”  But when it comes to mental health, it’s a whole different ball game.


Our approach to drug addiction has been a good example.  As a society, we have taken an overwhelmingly punitive approach to this, an approach that starts with the assumption that each individual is responsible for their actions.  If they behave badly, they should suffer consequences.  It’s not a health issue, we believe, because we assume that the vast majority of people are mentally healthy.  For that rare few who aren’t, we can slap a label on them and treat them differently.  But most people are healthy, therefore responsible for their actions, therefore we are justified in punishing them, or at least stigmatizing them.

Increasingly, though, there is talk about drug addiction as a health issue.  I won’t go into the obvious racial component of this change here.  My point is that this changes the whole complexion of the problem, because most people have suffered from some sort of health issue, so being “sick” is not considered “abnormal.”


You can probably guess where I’m headed with this.  If mental illness is a matter of degree, arguably most people are not completely well.  And if most of the population is not completely well, it changes our whole approach, not just to criminal justice, but to politics in general.  If we accept that most of us are unwell to some degree, how do we proceed?

Of course this raises the question, what IS mental health?  How do we define mental pathology?  Well, we don’t have to look far for the answer.  It’s about coping.  Coping with life, and particularly with society.  We define mentally healthy people as those who navigate our society well.  Thus the term “well adjusted.”  It’s not just about how happy you are.  A serial murderer might be very happy.  A completely isolated person might be incredibly happy.  But there is no way of knowing how mentally healthy they are.  If they commit murder the first time they see another human being – well, their happiness won’t cut it, as a marker for good mental health.


Thus we have the term sociopath (or psychopath), which describes an individual who treats others as mere tools for his or her purposes.  And as with many mental “disorders,” psychiatry recognizes that there is a continuum of people, with varying degrees of sociopathy.  A commonly used evaluation tool is the Psychopathic Personality Inventory.  It organizes a person’s personality according to 2 major factors:

1 – Fearless Dominance – The ability to charm and influence others, a lack of reaction to trauma or stress, and an eagerness for risky circumstances and behaviors.

2 – Self-centered Impulsivity – Difficulty in considering the consequences of actions, disregard for social norms, lack of empathy and detachment from others, and inability to take responsibility for actions.

High scores on this inventory are considered indicators of a psychopathic personality.  But again, it is all a matter of degree.  Everyone has a score.  And psychopathic personality disorder is only one of many personality disorders.  There is also narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.  All 3 of these are related, sharing the common feature of lack of empathy with others.  But empathy is all a matter of degree.  How much empathy is enough?  Where is the line drawn?


Psychological studies, not to mention history, have shown us clearly that so-called “normal” people are capable of committing atrocious acts.  There are the classic Milgram experiments, which I have described here, in which the mere presence of an authority figure urging them on led many subjects to commit murder (or so they thought).  These experiments have been repeated many times in many different countries, and the results are indisputable.  Ordinary, “normal” people are quite vulnerable to the pressure of authority.

My point is that “normal” amounts of empathy are no guarantee against atrocities, and when people are encouraged by their society to step on other people, one has to wonder how much empathy is “normal” in such a society.  In America, there is a culture of individualism and a culture, bordering on theology, of competition.  I personally find the culture of cheating in America quite interesting and instructive.  In a close competition, it only takes a little cheating to tip the scales.  You might call it fudging.  There is a pervasive attitude that says this is not only ethical, but desirable.  In Ken Burns’ excellent documentary Baseball, sportswriter Thomas Boswell tells us that “Americans have always had a wonderful aversion to excesses of honesty, and baseball has always been able to express that.  The sense in baseball is that they put those umpires out there to enforce the rules, but if you can get outside the rules and the umpires, it’s a reasonable question to ask whether you can do it.”

In other words, if you can cheat and get away with it, you should.  If you need to cheat in order to tip the scales in your favor, you should.  It’s the outcome that matters, not the way you get there.  The end justifies the means.  Americans are fond of saying “life isn’t fair,” and this is often used as a justification for their own rule-breaking.  Ironically, it’s often those who wave the flag and promote America as a just society who are the first to skirt around rules and laws that exist to ensure fairness – if they get in the way of self-interest.


This profound corruption of the whole notion of fairness is, I believe, an inevitable consequence of our economic system.  There is no provision for fairness in capitalism.  It is assumed that the pursuit of self-interest will balance things out overall, and that in the process everyone will be better off than if we place limits on their selfish behavior.  Of course, America has never had unbridled capitalism; nevertheless, the competitive culture and the weak social safety net breeds an anxiety and a lack of empathy, especially toward people of other ethnicities.  In a previous post, I discussed the difference between friendly competition and pathological competitiveness.  The atrocities and genocides of the 20th century were bad enough.  But they pale in comparison to what will happen in the 21st, if we don’t get pathological competitiveness under control.

Empathy, I believe, is key.  It must be institutionalized.  We must recognize that the inability to empathize with others, including STRANGERS, is a type of unwellness.  It isn’t about splitting off a few extreme people and labeling them psychopaths.  It’s about recognizing those tendencies in all of us, and getting serious about dealing with them.  It’s about recognizing that emotional intelligence is every bit as important as intellectual intelligence.  Many big-name Nazis were quite intelligent.


It is no accident that psychiatrists place narcissistic personality disorder within the same disorder cluster as antisocial personality disorder.  In fact, here are 9 indicators that psychiatrists use in diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder:

  1. grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people
  2. fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. needing continual admiration from others
  5. sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people
  8. intensely envious of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them
  9. pompous and arrogant demeanor

And here are 7 indicators that psychiatrists use in diagnosing antisocial personality disorder:

  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

They seem pretty similar, don’t they?  Many of these indicators, in both cases, boil down to the dehumanization of other people – treating them as mere pawns to be used for one’s own purposes.  And compare these to the 2 major factors on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory above.


We often think of those who rule over others, or control others, as “successful” people.  But change their personality only slightly, and they would be often classified as having antisocial personality disorder.  There is arguably a fine line between a criminal fraudster languishing in jail and a dictator ruling over millions.  The difference may only be in their relative skill at mass manipulation.  And people we think of as destructive cult leaders, like Jim Jones and David Koresh, may be little different from those in some very high positions of power at this moment.

There’s a great line in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:  “It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.  To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”  Highly persuasive people are often manipulators.  Arguably the first question we should ask of any candidate for public office is, “Do you want the job?”  If they say yes, perhaps they should be disqualified.  In more practical terms, we should always be using a firm guideline when evaluating candidates – are they telling us what we want to hear?  If the answer is yes, then THEY SURELY SHOULD BE DISQUALIFIED.  There’s a line in the movie The Princess Bride, in which Westley says, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”  It’s not a bad self-defense principle against hucksters and charlatans.


But the real question is, what about all of the so-called “normal” people?  In a highly interconnected world containing technologies that have enormous destructive potential, we need MUCH more empathy.  We need MUCH more assiduous attacks on tribalism.  These attacks need to be explicit and relentless.  There is a pervasive attitude in our media that everything is “just someone’s opinion.”  But psychiatrists consider some personality traits to be PATHOLOGICAL.  Because some “opinions,” translated into action, have real-life, destructive consequences.  Racism is not just someone’s opinion.  Sexism is not just someone’s opinion.  Nativism is not just someone’s opinion.  Tribalism, in all of its forms, is not just someone’s opinion.  It is a disorder that will get us all killed.

The Source of Greatness

Most Americans consider America to be a great country, and with good reason I think.  But there are 2 very different notions of what makes America great.  One says that the source of American greatness is the ambition of a few talented visionaries.  These big dreamers, inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and entrepreneurs like Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates, have pushed the country forward over the decades to become the technologically advanced superpower it is today.  America is a hotbed of innovation, this view holds, and it wouldn’t have been without the unbridled ambition of a few.


The other notion is that what has made America great is a set of ideals, translated into collective effort.  These ideals are justice, equality, and tolerance.  That the pursuit of these ideals has empowered ordinary people, producing the American middle class which is the real source of the country’s wealth and power.  That the American dream is living in a decent home, with the freedom to express whatever opinions you choose, religious or otherwise, in a society where everyone is treated with respect and dignity.  That this is precisely what has enabled America to thrive in a world full of ethnic hatreds and class distinctions.  And that the limits imposed on the greed and exploitive tendencies of a few have given us our greatness.

It would be nice if America could have a national discussion about this.  I’m not holding my breath.  Meanwhile, I offer the following observations.  First of all, let’s stipulate that economic wealth is an important part of a country’s greatness.  Does the ambition of a few translate into wealth?


Well, virtually every country contains ambitious people.  Take Zimbabwe for example.  Zimbabwe’s President is Robert Mugabe.  Mugabe is almost the definition of ambition.  Imprisoned in the 1960’s, he led a guerilla war against the country’s mostly white leadership in the 1970’s.  In 1980 he survived 2 assassination attempts and was elected Prime Minister.  In 1987 he became the country’s President and has occupied that office ever since.

Has all of this ambition translated into a prosperous Zimbabwe?  Well, no.  Out of 230 countries, the CIA ranks Zimbabwe 206th in per capita GDP.  Despite the fact that Zimbabwe has valuable deposits of gold, platinum, and diamonds, out of 151 countries it ranks 120th on the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index.  It’s Gini Coefficient, a measure of the country’s income inequality, is 50.1, double that of Sweden.  To quote the Heritage Foundation, “Massive corruption and disastrous economic policies have plunged Zimbabwe into poverty.”  There is widespread violation of human rights.


A few people in Zimbabwe do quite well.  But much of the country lives in poverty.  This is the story in much of the third world.  Many third world countries are ruled by a few ambitious, wealthy people, who use their positions to enrich themselves and their business associates.  As I have detailed in a previous post, the Heritage Foundation’s government integrity rating is the single most important correlate with their own measure of a country’s prosperity.  Prosperous countries are characterized by transparent, well-funded governments.  Examples include Switzerland, Japan, Norway, and Finland (which has the highest government integrity rating in the world).  Poor countries have corrupt governments that operate for the benefit of a few.  Examples include Bangladesh, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela (which has the lowest government integrity rating in the world).

Contrary to conservative ideology, it isn’t about how “big” government is.  Nigeria is a very poor country.  It is also an oil-rich country with a top income tax rate of only 24%.  The overall tax burden is a mere 2.8% of domestic income (compared to America’s 26% and Sweden’s 43%).  Angola is another poor third world country.  In Angola the top income tax rate is only 17%!  These countries are riddled with government corruption and the concentration of wealth, just as much as so-called “socialist” countries like Venezuela and Vietnam.  It is TRANSPARENT government that correlates with prosperity, not small government.


America ranks 12th in government integrity, ahead of most of the world but behind 4 of the 5 Scandinavian countries and behind 9 European countries, about a third of Europe.  As I have detailed in a previous post, America does rank highly in innovation but no higher than Sweden or the Netherlands, and 3 of the 5 Scandinavian countries are in the top 10 of innovation.  Within America itself, states that rank highly in innovation, like Massachusetts and California, are certainly not those with small government and low taxes.  They are those that tend to put an emphasis on education.

And this is really the crux of the matter.  An educated populace is the source of innovation, economic prosperity, and government integrity.  Education is the source of real power in the world.  The United States of America was founded by intellectuals.  The United Nations produces a country-by-country Education Index.  Zimbabwe has an Education Index of 0.5.  Compare this to America’s 0.89.  Norway’s is even higher – 0.91.  The correlation between education and prosperity is a clear, straightforward one:


Not a single country with an Education Index above 0.85 has a per capita GDP below $20,000 per year.  Not a single country with an Education Index below 0.5 has a per capita GDP above $10,000 per year.

One of the clearest examples of the failure of ambition per se is the contrast between North and South before the Civil War.  The South had slavery.  A few wealthy plantation owners essentially ran the society.  Because they had slaves, they did not need employees.  They had no desire to educate the masses, black or white.  By contrast, northern businessmen needed employees.  Education produced innovation.  The North rapidly industrialized.  This had everything to do with the outcome of the Civil War.


The creation of the American middle class was a direct result of compulsory education.  And today, the primary source of American prosperity is science and technology.  Without thousands of scientists and engineers this would not be possible.  Every day, American businesses complain about a shortage of educated workers.  Are they imagining it?  I don’t think so.

Economic prosperity is of course only one measure of a country’s greatness.  There are other things to consider – education, health, longevity, security, and of course, freedom.  As a country, America does pretty well on education.  The problem is that different parts of the population have very different education outcomes.  The same is true of health and longevity.  When we look at composite measures, like the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index, America tends to lag behind a number of European countries.  And freedom?  America ranks 23rd on the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, behind most of Europe.  It ranks 21st on the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, having recently lost its standing as a “full democracy,” and is now considered a “flawed democracy.”


Every one of the 5 Scandinavian countries ranks higher, with Norway at the very top of the list.  These “socialist” countries, with their universal health care, strong labor unions, and big government social safety nets are ranked higher on FREEDOM by the LIBERTARIAN Cato Institute.  Recently, I read an editorial in the National Review by columnist Jonah Goldberg, in which he said that “there is [Bernie] Sanders’ idea of ‘socialism,’ which is really an unworkable stew of banalities and nostrums stemming from a nostalgic idea of a ‘Scandinavian model’ that no longer exists (if it ever did).”  Well, WHATEVER it is that exists over there, right now, today, perhaps we could benefit from actually TALKING ABOUT IT, PRAGMATICALLY, before we invite ideologues to the discussion.

Generously and Shrewdly Nurtured

In Olaf Stapledon’s highly imaginative novel Star Maker, he takes us from the perspective of a single human individual all the way to that of the Star Maker, the creator.  On the way, he passes us through many levels of existence, from alien races not so different from our own, through advanced civilizations and galactic consciousness, in which even stars and galaxies are conscious beings.


In speaking of “busy utopias,” civilizations that have managed to escape self-destruction long enough to develop peaceful, prosperous societies, he briefly describes how they suppress what we would call antisocial behavior.  In these societies, he tells us “every individual was generously and shrewdly nurtured, and therefore not warped by unconscious envy and hate.”  It’s a very interesting choice of words.

Stapledon was well aware that “human nature” is not necessarily benign.  Human beings in our time have a lot of dangerous tendencies.  Children are often cruel, and not because they have cruel parents.  Children often have to be taught to share, to cooperate, to respect the rights of others.  Serial murderers sometimes come from very loving families.  In a previous post, I mentioned that we are not blank slates.  We come with baggage.


At the same time, humans do have a lot of flexibility.  We can learn respect, sharing, and cooperation.  Yet there always seem to be a minority who do not respond to such teachings.  How do we deal with them?

The answer, it seems to me, is we have to watch carefully for the signs.  They often appear early.  The seeds of antisocial behavior can be detected proactively, before they blossom into criminality.  Those who have such tendencies need special attention.  But this is really no different than other “special needs” children.  And for that matter, each child is an individual, who needs an individualized education and socialization.


A truly civilized society is one that focuses on child development with an understanding that we are all interconnected, that all of humanity is one family.  The vast majority of children, I believe, can be “generously and shrewdly nurtured” to become respectful, compassionate, civilized adults.  For that small minority who have special needs, I firmly believe those needs can be met too.  But the fact is, as a civilization we have only made baby steps toward instilling empathy in children.

In a previous post, I discussed the way parents often emphasize manners over empathy.  I strongly believe that the de-emphasis on empathy in American society has everything to do with our economic system.  It’s much harder to step on others on your way to “the top” when you have been socialized from an early age to empathize with them.  “I’m better than others.  I deserve more.”  This is an all-too-common sentiment in America, instilled at a young age in many.  Yet even with this, we live in a largely peaceful society, in which people walk amongst each other in public without fear, and quite generally treat each other with respect and dignity.


The Scandinavian countries rank highly on economic equality and prosperity.  It is no accident that their culture has a strong element of empathy, instilled from an early age.  It really amounts to an informal law – “Do not believe you are better than anyone else.”  This simple principle – I am no better than anyone else, seemingly ingrained in the American fabric in our Declaration of Independence, has never been taken seriously by Americans.

What is so interesting about the Scandinavian model is that it doesn’t deny the importance of the INDIVIDUAL.  It doesn’t say that we should all be clones.  On the contrary, it emphasizes individual rights and individual dignity.  Private property rights are strong.  Contracts are strictly enforced.  There are few restrictions on trade.  The individual, whether the worker or the owner, is not subservient to the state.  The power of owners is balanced by the power of workers.  The state provides the basics of life – health, education, retirement – for everyone.  It’s up to the individuals to do the rest.  But the pursuit of soulless materialism at the expense of others is simply not legitimized.


Of course, one could argue that this is relatively easy in a country that is racially homogeneous, where people look at others and tend to see reflections of themselves.  But this overlooks something very important.  Even when people DO look like each other, they often find ways to express their tribalist tendencies.  Irish Protestants and Catholics hacked at each other for decades.  Can you tell an ethnic Serb from an ethnic Croat?  A Sunni Muslim from a Shiite Muslim?  A Tutsi from a Hutu?  In each of these cases there have been brutal ethnic cleansings.  Looking like each other didn’t save them from bigotry and genocide.

And conversely, people of different ethnicities have sometimes learned to live together in peace.  American Jews and American Muslims often live, work, and play side by side.  The state of California, where more than 1 out of 10 Americans live, is now about 40% white, 38% Hispanic, 13% Asian, and 6% black.  Almost 30% of the population speaks Spanish.  The population is about 38% Protestant, 28% Catholic, and 27% no religious affiliation.  This diversity does not stop Californians from going about their daily business.  Yes, there is always a minority that is racist and xenophobic.  But my point is that looking like the other person is no guarantee of tolerance, and looking different is no guarantee of bigotry.


How much more is possible, in a society that zeroes in on empathy, empathy with those who are DIFFERENT, with a laser focus, instilling it in children from their earliest years?  A society that looks carefully for the seeds of antisocial behavior and deals with them?  A society of people who understand that the ultimate selfishness, in a community, is cooperation, compassion, and mutual support?  In other words, a civilized people.

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