Birth Pains?

Any woman who has given birth will confirm that the process is painful.  That analogy gives rise to a more positive way of looking at the multiple, seemingly insoluble problems we humans currently face–perhaps we are experiencing destruction that is necessary to make way for the birth of a better future.

That, at least, is the argument of The Great Progression, according to an article in The Big Think.

The author, one Peter Leyden, says that a “slow-moving, pro-progress story is being missed by most of the mainstream media chasing the minute-by-minute story of crisis and decline.”

The time has come for a positive reframe of what’s really going on in America and the world right now, and what’s actually going to happen in the near future. For far too long we’ve been looking at our current situation and the coming decades through the lens of the past.

Most people are stuck in the familiar default frame that sees many of our old systems breaking down in the face of myriad challenges like climate change, polarized politics, economic and social inequities, the paralysis of liberal democracies, and the rise of authoritarian states.

Yet we’re now at the point where we can view what’s happening, and what’s soon coming, through the lens of the future. That view sees the many nascent systems emerging that are superseding the old ones breaking down. This perspective sees many slow-moving positive developments coming to head, transformative technologies ready to scale, and new trends building to the tipping point. This perspective focuses not on breakdown but on rebirth.

Needless to say, this version of humankind’s current situation is infinitely preferable to the view that we are all doomed…..

Leyden writes that we will lay the foundations for a set of new systems over the next 10 years, after which they will “scale in the next 25 years.”  He calls this the story of The Great Progression, and asserts that

there’s also an emerging majority of smart, decent, and practical Americans who are realigning and getting positioned to make rapid progress in the years ahead.

This pro-progress story gets even better when you step back and think about the really big picture, when you think through how people living decades if not centuries from now will look back on our times. From that vantage point, we’re arguably at the beginning of a transformation that is going to change the world in profound and largely positive ways.

In the next 25 years, Leyden says, we will deal with climate change through transitions  from carbon to clean energy, and from internal-combustion engines to electric mobility. We will reinvent cities, scale up new industries and build a much more environmentally and socially sustainable society.

We very likely will reform capitalism around new economic priorities that counter the current imbalances and inequities. And we can be expected to revitalize our democracies and push back on authoritarianism around the world. People in 50, 100, or even 500 years from now may well look back on our era and marvel at the transformation that we’re about to go through.

Well, I’m certainly up for all those things…

Leyden says the evidence for this transformation is all around us–in powerful new tools like artificial intelligence, and unprecedented knowledge like the ability to understand and engineer the genomes of all living things. The  remainder of his essay lays out his version of the next 25 years, and he says we should hear him out because “I’ve been through this drill before, 25 years ago, and that story proved to be very prescient.” (This was a reference to his co-authorship of The Long Boom, a History of the Future, 1980 to 2020, a story for WIRED, which later became an influential book in multiple languages.)

It’s hard to debate his statement that the world we older people have spent lifetimes mastering is coming to an end. That, at least, seems self-evident.

Every one of those systems arguably is being superseded by new systems much better suited for the 21st century. Our uber-challenge is now climate change and so our energy system must shift to clean power and our transportation system to electric. Our culture now is dominated by the huge Millennial generation and our politics are becoming more progressive. Our economics is raising the role of the public sector and capitalism being pushed to include all stakeholders. Work is now taking place much more virtually, and production is on the cusp of becoming biological. And our geopolitics is recentering on Asia, and in particular on the new superpower, China.

The essay is long, and his evidence is at the link. It’s worth your time to read–and may lighten your mood…..It did mine. After all, he could be right!

 

Confirming What Most Of Us Know

Not long after the 2016 election, I had a conversation with my youngest son in which I shared my absolute amazement that any sentient person could cast a ballot for Donald Trump. How could they miss his total ignorance of government–not to mention his other repulsive characteristics? (Surely, people couldn’t see themselves having a beer with him–the usual explanation people offered for supporting George W. Bush..)

His response–which I’ve shared on this blog previously–was that every single Trump voter fell into one of two–and only two– categories: those who shared and appreciated his racism, and those for whom his racism wasn’t disqualifying.

My son’s explanation struck me as correct then, and the racist underpinnings of the MAGA movement have only become more obvious since. Now, as Jennifer Rubin has explained in a column for the Washington Post, there’s added evidence of its accuracy.

As she begins,

It has long been understood that the MAGA movement is heavily dependent on White grievance and straight-up racism. (Hence Donald Trump’s refusal to disavow racist groups and his statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” in the violent clashes at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.)

Now, we have numbers supporting that thesis.

Rubin proceeds to describe a survey recently fielded by PRRI–the Public Religion Research Institute. The survey had 11 statements that had been designed to probe the respondent’s views on racism. The researchers then used their answers to quantify a “structural racism index,”basically, a score from zero to 1 that measured attitudes on “white supremacy and racial inequality, the impact of discrimination on African American economic mobility, the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system, general perceptions of race, and whether racism is still a significant problem today.”

The higher the score, the more receptive to racist attitudes.

The results shouldn’t surprise anyone paying attention to the MAGA crowd’s rhetoric and veneration of the Confederacy. “Among all Americans, the median value on the structural racism index is 0.45, near the center of the scale,” the poll found. “The median score on the structural racism index for Republicans is 0.67, compared with 0.45 for independents and 0.27 for Democrats.” Put differently, Republicans are much more likely to buy into the notion that Whites are victims.

The survey also looked at differences among religious groups, and found that White evangelical Protestants had the highest median score, at 0.64. Latter-day Saints, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants all came in at a median of 0.55. Religiously unaffiliated white Americans scored 0.33.

It turned out that the “Lost Cause” –the effort to rewrite the history of the Civil War and downplay or ignore the role played by slavery– is. popular on the right:

Republicans overwhelmingly back efforts to preserve the legacy of the Confederacy (85%), compared with less than half of independents (46%) and only one in four Democrats (26%). The contrast between white Republicans and white Democrats is stark. Nearly nine in 10 white Republicans (87%), compared with 23% of white Democrats, support efforts to preserve the legacy of the Confederacy.”

That “legacy,’ of course, is treason in service of slavery.

Rubin quotes Robert P. Jones, who leads PRRI,  as saying the result is attributable to the fact that Americans don’t know their own history. That history includes a “widespread, centuries-long Christian defense of white supremacy.” Given that history, Jones says, “it’s hardly a surprise that a denial of systemic racism is a defining feature of White evangelicalism today.”

Those who want to keep Confederate monuments and offensive mascots in place might deny that their views have anything to do bigotry, but then again, they often deny the legacy of racism and paint Whites as victims, too. In general, MAGA forces have one goal when they amplify “replacement theory” or fuss over corporations promoting inclusivity: to maximize White anger and resentment.

The PRRI poll shows the degree to which the MAGA movement has convinced the core of the GOP base that they are victims. As Rubin says, “And let’s be clear: An aggrieved electoral minority that believes it has been victimized and is ready to deploy violence is a serious threat to an inclusive democracy.”

The results of this research aren’t a surprise. The survey not only confirms what most of us can see, it answers an otherwise imponderable question: why would anyone support Donald J. Trump–a truly loathsome, ignorant (and clearly mentally-ill) man without a single redeeming feature?

The answer is: He hates and fears the same people they do. And shared racism is evidently sufficient to outweigh all the rest……

The Past Is Present

Our family just returned from an all-weekend celebration of my husband’s 90th birthday. Our daughter arranged it all–a party (at which he was surprised by the President of Indianapolis’ City-County Council, who read a Council proclamation issued in his honor), and a weekend trip to New Harmony, Indiana, where our family “took over” an entire, fairly large restored Victorian bed and breakfast.

For those of you unfamiliar with New Harmony, it’s a small historic town tucked into the southwest corner of the state. The entire town is a historic landmark; settled in 1814, it was founded as a “Utopia.”  Twice. It was first a spiritual sanctuary for the Harmonie Society–a German religious order– and then as a haven for international scientists and scholars led by Robert Owen. (Owen’s version might have lasted longer had he included some farmers and folks who could work with their hands along with the intellectual glitterati he assembled..)

Owen’s vision for “a New Moral World” of happiness, enlightenment, and prosperity is the better-known of the two experiments. Owen believed that a utopia could be achieved through education, science, technology, and communal living–elements that would foster  a “superior social, intellectual and physical environment” based on his ideals of social reform.  In January 1825 he signed the agreement to purchase the town from the Harmonie Society, renamed it New Harmony, and invited anyone who agreed with his vision to join him.

According to various accounts, the experiment attracted “crackpots, free-loaders, and adventurers” in addition to the scientists, artists and intellectuals Owen recruited. Almost immediately, members began arguing about inequities between workers and non-workers, and the town’s overcrowding. The lack of sufficient housing and the settlement’s inability to produce other needed goods has been attributed to a shortage of skilled craftsmen and laborers.

There’s lots more information about New Harmony and its  utopian history online–if you’re interested, Wikipedia will get you started.

We assembled at the Visitor’s Center on Saturday morning for a tour. The Center is in a world-famous contemporary building designed by Richard Meier sometime in the 1960s. A walking tour took us to several of the original structures, most of which have been carefully restored, and we learned that Robert Owen’s partner in “Utopia II” was a man named William McClure, who was a great proponent of education and the dissemination of knowledge, especially via newspapers. ( Evidently, the contemporary McClures Magazine is named for him. The things you learn…)

McClure was every bit as interesting as Owen, although his name is far less well-known (at least to me). President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia from 1817 to 1840, he came to New Harmony during the winter of 1825–1826, and brought with him a group of artists, educators, and fellow scientists from Philadelphia. They arrived aboard a keelboat that became known as the “Boatload of Knowledge.”

McClure directed the settlement’s schools, which became the first public schools in the United States open to both boys and girls, and established one of the country’s first  trade schools. He also established The Working Men’s Institute, a society for “mutual instruction.” It includes the oldest continuously operating library in Indiana, as well as a small museum.  The terms of his will included a provision bequeathing $500 to any club or society of laborers in the United States that established a reading and lecture room with a library of at least 100 books–and some 160 libraries in Indiana and Illinois took advantage of the bequest.

We visited an exhibit showcasing McClure’s printing operation, which included examples of the newspapers and other materials he produced, and I was especially struck by a placard he’d printed. It was headed: HEAR! and read

JOSEPH SHOWERS, Treasurer of Posey County will divide time with, and reply to, JUDGE J. PITCHER at New Harmony, Wednesday, September 4th, 1872 at 7 o’clock PM at POSEYVILLE, Thursday, September 5th at 7 o’clock PM …

Three other sites and times were also listed. Then below those listings:

Come out citizens and taxpayers and hear a complete and thorough vindication of the honesty and integrity of your County Officers against calumnies now being circulated by unscrupulous politicians for mere partisan effect.

I would say that some things never change, but obviously the grammar and vocabulary of those political “calumnies” has degraded rather significantly.

Political misinformation and mudslinging aren’t new. The methods of their dissemination, however, are. It would be fascinating to know just how many voters of Posey County attended these events that “divided time” and allowed candidates to “reply” to accusations. It would be equally interesting to know just how common these face-to-face debates were.

Most of all, it would be helpful to understand which elements of Robert Owen’s Utopian vision worked, and which ones didn’t, and why.

The Morality Police

We are living in–and hopefully, through–an age  of  global upheaval. Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the uprisings in Iran, prompted by the death of a young woman at the hands of that country’s “Morality Police.” As the Washington Post reported,

Protests in Iran continue more than a week after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being taken into custody by the “morality police” for the offense of allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code. The Post reports: “The anti-government protests she inspired are still raging across Iran. Demonstrators, many of them women, are burning hijabs and fighting back against police; they are tearing down posters and setting fire to billboards of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.” More than 30 people have been killed. The Post has verified video showing the police firing into crowds of protesters.

Several media outlets have reported on the nature of her dress code violation: a loose headscarf.

A 22-year-old died because her headscarf–which she was wearing in compliance with Iran’s religious laws–was deemed “too loose.”

These reports reminded me of a book I read several years ago, and after racking my brain, I finally remembered the title: Hellfire Nation.  I commend it to the attention of those who don’t think America has its own version of Morality Police. The publisher’s description is less hair-raising than I found the book itself, which was replete with descriptions of this country’s repeated moral panics.

This insightful new conceptualization of American political history demonstrates that—despite the clear separation of church and state—religion lies at the heart of American politics. From the Puritan founding to the present day, the American story is a moral epic, James Morone says, and while moral fervor has inspired the dream of social justice it has also ignited our fiercest social conflicts.

From the colonial era to the present day, Americans embraced a Providential mission, tangled with devils, and aspired to save the world. Moral fervor ignited our fiercest social conflicts—but it also moved dreamers to remake the nation in the name of social justice. Moral crusades inspired abolition, woman suffrage, and civil rights, even as they led Americans to hang witches, enslave Africans, and ban liquor. Today these moral arguments continue, influencing the debate over everything from abortion to foreign policy.

Written with passion and deep insight, Hellfire Nation tells the story of a brawling, raucous, religious people. Morone shows how fears of sin and dreams of virtue defined the shape of the nation.

As one reviewer noted,  the book’s “explanatory work is performed by the ubiquitous trio of race, class, and gender.” The author demonstrated the various ways that “anxious Americans invoke the concept of sin to stigmatize and control dangerous others.”  This stigmatization has allowed our home-grown bigots t to characterize America’s underclass  not only as “other” but as “wicked”—and the book traced the implications of that characterization for policy formation. (My own scholarship confirmed that assertion; I found George W. Bush’s Charitable Choice initiative firmly grounded in a worldview that blamed poverty on a perceived lack of “middle-class values.”)

Hellfire Nation described a recurring political cycle, running from zealotry, to bigotry, to panic, and finally to state-enforced legal prohibitions. It also explains what so many of us see as hypocrisy: the self-described “small government” conservatives who are nevertheless all too eager to use the state to impose their own views of morality on others–a scenario we can most recently see playing out in the eagerness of those same conservatives to criminalize abortion.

It is, of course, more complicated than that.

The book documented two kinds of morality politics. The first kind is based upon a concept of sin as an individual moral failure that focuses on efforts to punish the sinner. The second kind locates sin in systemic failures and as a result, makes an effort to restructure the system.(It’s an intriguing way of mapping the differences between conservatives and progressives.)

Those who adhere to the first understanding of sin are preoccupied with  what they see as affronts to God; the second group is more concerned with earthly justice.That said, in the real world, the two versions are not so neatly allocated. As the book tells us, abolitionists combined a progressive vision of racial justice with a very intense focus on personal industry and sexual purity.

America’s legal system separates church from state, but as any reading of our history will confirm, that has never stopped our homegrown Morality Police from trying–often successfully–to impose the mandates of their religious dogmas on their neighbors.

They want a version of Iran based upon adoption of their particular form of Christianity. It is not inaccurate to point out that we will be voting on that vision in November.

Objectivity Versus Balance

George Packer recently sent out a newsletter hawking subscriptions to the Atlantic. I’ve been a subscriber for many years, so I was preparing to delete the email, but it contained a description of genuine journalism that was so apt and timely–especially in the era of Fox and its clones–that I decided to share it.

Packer, as many of you know, is a highly respected political scientist, and author of several well-received books. He also writes for the Atlantic. He began his newsletter as follows:

When I went to Ukraine last May to report the story that appears in The Atlantic’s October issue, I didn’t go as a neutral observer. I very much wanted Ukraine to win the war, and I was happy to bring a suitcase full of medical supplies to Ukrainian doctors who would make sure the equipment reached soldiers at the front. If I’d been asked to do the same for doctors on the Russian side, I would have had no trouble refusing. Intellectually and morally, none of this was complicated. Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s unprovoked aggression, it is a smaller country bullied by a larger one, and it is a democratic society threatened by an imperial dictatorship. The stakes of the war were as clear and high as those of any event in living memory.

For all the high-minded, public-spirited justifications that journalists offer for what we do, at the bottom lies a fundamentally selfish motive. Some stories attract us for their novelty, others for their scale, or their complexity, or their sheer excitement. Ukraine attracted me because I wanted to see a cause in which I’d come to believe—because I’d chosen sides.

Isn’t “choosing sides” exactly what we don’t want journalists to do? Packer weighs in with an explanation of why that is the wrong way to think about the nature and necessity of objectivity.


Should this partisanship have given me ethical qualms? Should it bother readers of the article? Journalists are not licensed according to a professional code of ethics, but there’s a long-standing sense that we shouldn’t take sides—at least not openly. A reporter covering a presidential election is not supposed to announce which candidate he or she supports, and some reporters even abstain from voting at all to remain above suspicion. At an extreme, the idea of neutrality leads to an absurd pursuit of balance in which a lie on one side of a political divide is given equal status with the truth. At the opposite pole, journalists with a strong bias might hide important facts and shade their storytelling in intellectually dishonest ways to manipulate the reader to a prefixed conclusion. In one famous example, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, a Stalin sympathizer, denied the existence of the Soviet-engineered famine in the early 1930s that killed several million Ukrainians.

Welcome to the Fox proclamation that its news coverage is “fair and balanced.”

As I used to tell the students in my Media and Public Policy classes, “balance” is most definitely not the same thing as “factual” or “objective.” The emphasis on balance has given us what observers call “stenography journalism”–he said/she said, we report, you decide. (For years, that approach undercut efforts to explain the gravity of climate change; it gave equal time and emphasis to the 97% of scientists who were issuing warnings and the 3% of outliers and outright cranks who denied it.)

Packer addressed the danger–and dishonesty–of that false emphasis.

There’s a great deal of space between both-sides-ism and Duranty-ism, between spurious balance and outright deception. In that space, journalists are bound to take sides. But choosing sides requires objectivity, which is very different from neutrality. Objectivity is the pursuit of truth regardless of subjective impulses or political commitments. It’s what makes it possible to choose sides and remain credible. Partisanship imposes an extra burden to keeping our minds open to whatever might challenge our biases, to being on guard for any impulse to suppress or self-censor. As Bob Dylan put it: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” (Emphasis mine.)

Journalists are human, and they will get things wrong. As with all humans, they can see only through their own eyes. What we have the right to demand is not a”balance” that abdicates responsibility for truth-telling– the stenography approach. Instead, we have a right to expect journalists to do as Packer counsels–keep their minds open to information that challenges their biases. 

As we have all seen in discussions that accompany this blog, that’s not easy. When people are convinced that their understandings are more accurate and trustworthy than the perceptions or reports of others, they will cherry-pick sources and evidence.

Objectivity is beyond them, so passion substitutes.