Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Widening Gulf

A reader recently sent me a copy of a column from his local paper. (Congratulations on still having one of those…)

The column (behind a paywall) looked at the ever-widening gulf between legislatures controlled by Republicans and those in majority-democratic states. Those differences, the column suggested, can offer a lens on where the country is heading.

Given the rest of the column, I’d guess that we are heading for further polarization, if not a cold civil war…

The author identified three “big themes” playing out across state capitols this year. The first such theme is no surprise– the “continuing rise of hyper-polarized policies. Red and blue states will push further apart on everything from voting laws, abortion, gay rights, education and taxation. States under single-party dominance–the “trifecta states”– will  feel free to pursue their very divergent approaches to America’s culture wars.

This year there are 39 “trifecta” states, in which a single party controls all three branches of government (both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office). This allows states to “make decisions and make them relatively quickly,” says Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri, an expert on legislatures. “The contrast with Washington will be stark.”

The column gave examples, including Red Wyoming, where a bill that (mercifully) died in committee would have banned the sale of all new electric vehicles starting in 2035, in order to protect the state’s oil and gas industry.

Blue California is considering several new gun control proposals; while Florida and other Red states, are likely to legalize permitless carry.” (Red Indiana already passed this, over the dire and entirely accurate predications of law enforcement personnel.)

A second theme will be Red state governments taking aim at private companies that have the nerve to defy lawmakers’ partisan political agendas. Proposals currently pending in Republican states, including (of course!) Texas, would revoke firms’ tax incentives if they help employees get abortions.

What ever happened to the Republican Party that–according to Barry Goldwater–wanted to keep government out of both your boardroom and your bedroom? Ah–for the good old days…

Blue California is considering a cap on oil firms’ profits, while legislators in Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina (and Indiana) want to prohibit state governments from doing business with firms that take environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles into account.

And of course,”some governors will use these legislative sessions as résumé-building for higher office.” Ron DeSantis is way out in front on that “theme”–staking out a coveted MAGA position as head of the White Nationalist movement. The column noted “DeSantis’s signature policies”–restricting what students can be taught about sex and sexuality, punishing Disney for inclusiveness, waging war on anything he can label “woke” and of course, gerrymandering and suppressing the votes of Black Floridians…

Constitution? What Constitution?

As the article pointed out, it isn’t just the big states that are political weather vanes.

smaller states that became Democratic trifectas in 2022, Michigan and Minnesota, will generate headlines too. If rumblings that Michigan is going to repeal its anti-union “right-to-work” law prove correct, it would be the first state to do so since 1965, says Chris Warshaw of George Washington University.

The column says that one way to think of these 2023 state legislative sessions is as a long-running television drama, featuring many of the “same characters and issues from last time: abortion, rights for LGBTQ people, and culture-war debates on curricula in public schools. Already, 202 LGBTQ-related bills have been introduced; a record, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. (Missouri, with 31, has the most, followed by Oklahoma’s 27.)”

Proposals include banning trans children from having surgery or anyone born male from taking part in girls’ sports. There is talk of banning and even criminalizing drag shows.

The author noted that more prosaic concerns–the actual work of government–are getting short shrift. But even there, the division between Red and Blue is stark: 
in numerous states that are still enjoying large surpluses, thanks to high tax receipts and federal money, Red state governors want to use the funds to cut taxes, not to improve decaying infrastructure or (heaven forbid!) pay teachers a living wage. 

As the column concluded, 

Most legislatures would be wise to squirrel away some of their surpluses for times of economic duress, says Justin Theal of Pew Charitable Trusts, which monitors states’ fiscal health.

But for politicians, saving has never generated as many headlines as raving.

And headlines are the name of the game when politics becomes performative….

Behavior Versus Identity

Last Sunday, I was a guest in an adult class at St. Luke’s United Methodist church.  The class wanted to discuss the recent, disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. (St. Luke’s is one of the local churches in my “good guys–actual Christians” column.)

The format was informal–Q and A– but I did begin by suggesting that, before embarking on discussion, it was important to distinguish between hatred and ignorance.

As I explained, when I was young, growing up in one of only 30 Jewish families in Anderson, Indiana, most of what I encountered was ignorance:  I was asked things like “Do Jews have tails?”  and “Do Jews live in houses like real people?” But there was also animus: in third grade, a playmate informed me that “My parents said I can’t play with you because you’re a dirty Jew.”

It’s also important to distinguish between criticisms of Israeli actions/politics and anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel’s government or policies is not anti-Semitic (plenty of American Jews are appalled by Netanyahu). That said, criticisms of Israel grounded in longstanding anti-Jewish tropes are anti-Semitic.

In the United States, citizens are supposed to be judged on our behavior, not our identities. Today’s polarization is to a great extent a fight between Americans who want their countrymen to live up to that principle and those who defend negative stereotypes based on religion, sexual orientation and skin color.

Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews because we’re Jews.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from ignorance–the relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows.” Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. Most people aren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes, and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode once there was greater familiarity and more contact.

Allport’s great contribution was to distinguish between prejudices that were simply an outgrowth of widely held–albeit inaccurate and unfair– social attitudes and those that were central to an individual’s identity. He found that most people who expressed bigotry against blacks or Jews (then the most frequent targets) were not invested in their negative opinions –they had simply accepted common stereotypes about “others,” and they could be educated to change what were essentially casual beliefs they had never really examined.

But there was, he found, another category. It was much smaller, but also much more troubling. These were individuals that Allport—who founded the discipline of social psychology—described as invested in their bigotries. For whatever reason—bad toilet training, lack of parental affection, abuse—their belief in the inferiority of designated “others” had become absolutely central to their personalities. Education and contact would have no effect at all on their attitudes.

Allport recognized that we all have a fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility, and that desire makes a certain amount of what we might call “identity-based one-upsmanship” inevitable. He also recognized that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change.

As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport put it, “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.”

In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone or something we can identify—we channel our aggressions against an outsider, an “other.”

Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one?  Allport notes that the nearest thing to an “all-purpose” scapegoat is a group that has a degree of permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn’t any basis for a good, persistent mythology about Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable from others who live in Lexington.

Jews, blacks and gays, however (along with women) have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, we’ll all continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.

Undoubtedly, there will always be emotionally-unhealthy people who need someone or something to blame for the disappointments in their lives. My conversation with the lovely folks at church last Sunday reminded me that there are also a lot of good people “out there.”

At times like this, that’s comforting to know.

 

 

Misinformation Matters

A good friend of ours, originally from Canada, left his faculty position in Indianapolis and moved to Ottawa to assume a position as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, or CCA.

Knowing my preoccupation with media and misinformation, he has shared some intriguing research from an expert panel appointed by the CCA. That research delved into the effects of misinformation on science and health, going beyond the typical hand-wringing over the extent of misinformation and its potential harms, and looking instead at the nature and extent of quantifiable damage done by widespread dissemination of patently wrong information.

As a news release explained

Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.

You can access the entire report here.Some of the findings struck me as particularly significant, especially the description of when, why and how people come to accept what the panel calls “misinformation” and I would probably label conspiracy theories and lies.

Misinformation is designed to appeal to emotion and–as the report notes–intended to exploit our “cognitive shortcuts.” We are all susceptible to it, especially in times of crisis.

Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The research found a number of outcomes directly attributable to the spread and acceptance of misinformation; they included: Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products; Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases; money wasted on disproven products and services; susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation; increased healthcare and societal costs; and Inaction on or delay of public policy responses.

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Where possible, panel members put numbers to these generalized descriptions, estimating that widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 had cost the Canadian healthcare system “at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021.” That number did not include the costs of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID.

And for obvious reasons, the panel was unable to estimate what it called “broader societal costs.” Those included such difficult-to-quantify effects as “delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.”

The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates. In the U.S., political data confirms the harm: the MAGA folks who rejected vaccination (evidently believing it to be some sort of nefarious liberal plot) died of COVID in far larger numbers than the independents and Democrats who trusted the science.

The question is: what can be done to counter the confusion and reduce the damage sowed by purveyors of propaganda and inaccurate information? One answer is clearly education, especially science education.  (That conclusion supports concerns over the metastasizing  voucher programs that are sending students to private, predominantly religious schools–many of which have been found to teach creationism in lieu of science).

When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.

 

Some Positive Harbingers

These days, there is so much to complain about, to worry about–and thanks to the Internet, so many voices (including mine) pointing to our social deficits and failures. But there is also good news “out there,” and anyone who isn’t fixated on what’s going wrong can’t help but acknowledge positive harbingers as well as dire predictions.

I receive a number of publications that focus on science and the environment, for example, and reports of breakthroughs are a consistent–for that matter, a daily– feature. Let me just share a few examples of the sort of positive news that rarely makes the front pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post. These are from just one source: Euronews:

A Belgian NGO is using human hair clippings to absorb environmental pollutants.The hair is turned into matted squares, which can be used to absorb oil and other hydrocarbons. The mats can be placed in drains to soak up pollution in water before it reaches a river. They can also be used to deal with pollution problems due to flooding and to clean up oil spills.

In the EU, solar power soared by almost 50 per cent this year (2022).

The IEA reported that the world is set to add as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the past 20.

London-based start-up Notpla believes it has an answer to our plastic waste problem: a plastic alternative made from seaweed and plants. It’s totally natural, completely biodegradable and can be used to make a range of packaging from bubbles to hold liquid to linings for food containers.

Here in the U.S., despite GOP resistance, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act–a  historic bill that makes the single largest investment in climate and energy in America’s history.

There are many, many more stories of progress, including the important breakthrough on nuclear fusion, which may eventually provide humanity with unlimited–and non-globe-warming–power.

It isn’t just science, or medical science (where equally impressive progress continues to be made). Even in our fraught politics, there are bright spots. The election of Lula to replace climate denier Bolsonaro in Brazil may save the rest of the  critically-important Amazon rainforest from further destruction.

Fareed Zakaria argues that there are signs that the coming year will finally see a decline in the global populism that threatens democracies worldwide.

Zakaria begins by describing the current travails of the GOP, which are likely to prevent the party from doing anything substantive, including damage. He then writes:

The Republican Party’s troubles are severe. Newt Gingrich told Axios that the party is in its worst shape in almost six decades. But it is not alone. In many countries around the world, populists are flailing.

Look at Britain, where Brexit — perhaps the ultimate 21st-century populist cause — has caused havoc within the Conservative Party, which used to be described as the world’s oldest and most successful political party. Britain has had five prime ministers in the six years since 2016; the prior five prime ministers spanned more than 30 years. The self-defeating decision to exit its largest market, the European Union, continues to depress the country’s economic prospects, and it remains the weakest of the Group of Seven economies. In the Group of 20, only Russia is projected to do worse than Britain in the near future…

In the recent elections, Australia’s conservatives suffered their worst loss ever, and the even more extreme United Australia and One Nation Parties did poorly as well. The new Labor prime minister enjoys an extraordinarily high approval rating.

Even in Argentina– a hotbed of populism since Peron–the populist movement is at its lowest ebb.

Zakaria explains these setbacks for the movement by reminding readers that populism is essentially an opposition movement. Populist politicians denounce the “establishment” or the “elites,” encourage fear and promote conspiracy theories. Their  promises are emotional rather than practical–build a wall, ban immigration, stop trade.

But once in government, the shallowness of its policy proposals is exposed, and its leaders can’t blame others as easily. Meanwhile, if non-populist forces are sensible and actually get things done, they defang some of the populist right.

Look at the United States, where President Biden’s moderate style, serious demeanor and practical policymaking have given him large legislative accomplishments without triggering a massive electoral backlash. Now, he does benefit by being an old, White man. Had Barack Obama enacted the same policies, I have a feeling we would be hearing much more talk of Obama’s dangerous socialism and un-American policies, complete with racial innuendos.

As Zakaria notes, the world’s problems are complicated, and there will always be activists proposing solutions that are “simple, seductive and wrong.” But there are hopeful signs; 2023 could be the year the fever begins to break.

 

Liberals, Conservatives And The Radical Right

 Americans’ misuse of language is a major contributor to our broken politics. Over the years, terms that originally conveyed a more-or-less specific meaning have been emptied of content and turned into labels and epithets. 

Take “liberal.” I used to define my own political orientation as that of an “18th Century liberal” –someone whose political philosophy was shaped by the libertarian premise underlying the Constitution and Bill of Rights–in order to distinguish myself from post-FDR liberals who favored a more activist state.

That political philosophy led me to be a Republican, because “18th-Century liberalism” was then a definition of conservatism. The GOP certainly had “fringe” folks who were racist and anti-Semitic, but the mainstream of the party defined conservatism as limited government. (To quote Barry Goldwater, Republicans believed that government didn’t belong in either your boardroom or your bedroom.)

As Danielle Allen explained on a recent podcast, there have always been varieties of liberalisms.

But you have to start, of course, from the core: the commitment to basic human rights. And then, for me, the question is which categories of rights are at the focus of any given liberalism. You have your liberalisms that really focus on things like freedom of expression, or freedom of contract and free market participation. Philosophers will call those the “negative freedoms”—freedom from interference. Then you have varieties of liberalism that focus on the right to participate, to vote, to run for office, to help shape your community. Philosophers call those the “positive liberties.”

As I have grown older, and watched the effects of Neoliberalism–a radical form of 18th-Cantury liberalism focused on minimizing the influence of government through deregulation, privatization and austerity- -I’ve come to appreciate the importance of government in protecting those positive liberties.

As Professor Allen explained, in ancient times, the right to participation was considered a part of the human good.

The actual experience of empowerment is a component of human flourishing. I am making the case that we need to recover that idea. Absent that idea, our politics is paternalistic and technocratic…. I think precisely because it’s paternalistic and technocratic, it works incredibly well for elites. But for those who have been subject to oppression and domination over time, the point to be made—and it doesn’t matter if it’s David Walker, Frederick Douglass or WEB Dubois—is that we will own and direct and steer our own lives. That requires empowerment at a collective level and it’s not just instrumental. It’s not just about self-protection. It’s about full human dignity…

It is really important to recognize that today’s GOP is “none of the above.” Principled conservatives–a/k/a 18th Century liberals–have fled the party, which is now a chaotic alt-right amalgam of racists, conspiracy-theorists and authoritarians,  unimpeded by the few remaining, spineless remnants of the party’s former establishment.

The alt-right, too ,has a “philosophy.” It  draws inspiration from little known figures on the fringes of history. There was Oswald Spengler, for example, an intellectual who celebrated the “heroic” culture of the West.

Spengler asserted that culture was in danger of being overwhelmed from within by lack of confidence and loss of a sense of identity–and from without by the “downtrodden races of the outer ring,” who had begun to move from the periphery to the center, armed with the technologies shared with them by the West owing to what Spengler characterized as misguided liberal values.

Julius Evola celebrated “tradition, hierarchy, inequality, the superiority of the master class” and the natural state of community that liberalism, democracy, and socialism had destroyed with their glorification of reason, which drained the world of meaning. For Evola, race was destiny.

Francis Yockey, a virulent anti-Semite, argued that world domination is the essential drive of western culture, and the people of the West must live up to that destiny or witness their culture lose its “vitality.”  

Alain de Benoist of France inspired the Great Replacement Theory, which holds that immigration represents an “existential threat” to the white community and is part of a conspiracy to water down and eventually replace the white race as the dominant race in western societies.

Samuel Francis was obsessed with the idea that “the civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”

Most MAGA Republicans, of course, are unaware of the current party’s “intellectual” roots. They are neither liberal nor conservative–just fearful, angry and destructive.

It’s unfair to conservatives to call today’s GOP “conservative.” It is anything but.