Tag Archives: politics

Bridges or Walls

I just finished reading Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us by Avi Tuschman, an appropriate topic for this election year.  While well-written, this  heavily-researched, scientific analysis of where and why individuals fall on the political spectrum of left to right might not be everyone’s idea of summer reading, so I will give a very brief summary of its main points.

Conservatives are extremely concerned with protecting their in-group from all those who are in the out-groups, which is the vast majority of the rest of the world.  Fear drives their ideology, leading them to want to build walls, both metaphorical and actual, to protect their in-group from ‘invasion’ and change.

Liberals are open to new experiences and groups.  They are drawn to those who are different from themselves and don’t really see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups.  Rather, they see everyone’s humanity.  Because of their desire to connect, liberals build bridges.  They view change as a virtue rather than as something to fear.

As with all traits, physical and behavioral, genes and environments interact to produce a bell-shaped distribution curve.  Most individuals fall in the middle: they are conservative in some ways and liberal in others.  In political terms, this means that compromise is possible.  However, as one moves towards the tails (i.e. ‘right-wing’ and ‘left’wing’), individuals become more ideologically rigid and less compromise is possible.  In fact, at the extremes, compromise is disdained and vilified.

The ideologies of the extreme right (rigid hierarchies, extreme inequality, little individual freedom) and the extreme left (extreme equality, much  individual freedom, little hierarchy) are utopian in nature: both believe that they are creating the perfect world.  However, both become authoritarian regimes where the rulers are treated as semi-divine.  Tuschman considers communist regimes as exemplars of the extreme left.  Although he does not explicitly state this, it appears that he would place the social democracies of Europe more within the liberal section of the curve than the extreme left.

Our Political Nature was published in 2013, well before the current election cycle, so I am extrapolating from Tuschman’s analysis for the remainder of this essay.  While the US has yet to devolve into either extreme form of authoritarian control, the current US House of Representatives is under the sway of individuals who express an extreme right-wing ideology.  Compromise is evil and their patron saint is the semi-divine Ronald Reagan whose name has been plastered everywhere.

Until this election cycle, the US has not had an extreme-left candidate who managed to obtain national prominence, but this changed with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders who has a utopian, leftist ideology of revolution leading to extreme equality.  As with right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists are unwilling to compromise.  Their ideology is right and just; therefore, compromise is not possible.  I imagine this is why Sanders and his staunchest followers are finding it almost impossible to accept defeat.  It also explains the cult of personality Bernie has engendered.  If he somehow became president, I would expect that his name would be plastered everywhere.  Fortunately for the US, Bernie Sanders will not be president as, according to Tuschman,  the extremes always lead to an authoritarian government no matter what their utopian intentions were.

Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is what enables liberals and conservatives to work together to create a functioning, democratic government; one where there can be tariffs (walls) to protect the country while also having treaties (bridges) to bring differing groups closer together.



Inequality Faultlines

I recently finished The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi.  Instead of paraphrasing Taibbi’s words, I’ve decided to post a number of what I consider the most pertinent quotes from this extremely important book.

“We [Americans] have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.” (p.xx)

“…the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (p. xxii)

“So the only time RICO was used to fight mortgage fraud was when the criminal was a black gang member and the victims were banks. (Ironically, nobody thought to wonder how it was possible for a Lincoln Park gang member to buy 222 houses with no money down.  Heading into that particular rabbit hole would have led to the larger crime, but nobody did.)  (p. 44)

“In 2011…New York City police stopped and searched a record 684,724 people.  Out of those 88 percent were black or Hispanic.  The ostensible justification for the program is looking for guns, but they find guns in less than 0.02 percent of stops.  More often, they make people empty their pockets and find nothing at all.”  (p. 57)

“…the very lowest kind of offender in the illegal drug business, the retail consumer at the very bottom of the drug food chain, had received a far stiffer sentence [jail for smoking half a joint] than officials of HSBC [an international bank where no one went to jail] who were hundreds of thousands of dollars deep into the illegal drug business, not for any excusable reason but just to seek profits to pile on top of profits.”  (p.63)

“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand.  One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons.  The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrail pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.”  (p.130)

“Ultimately this all comes down to discretion.  If they want, the police can arrest you for just about anything.” (p. 132)

“Here it’s the same thing.  Police make bad arrests, a settlement comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket, but the officer himself never even hears about it.  He doesn’t have to pay a dime.  And life goes on as before…You can’t secure an officer’s dismissal, can’t get a policy change, and can’t get anyone brought up on charges.”  (pp. 134-135)

“This small Georgia city [Gainesville] is ground zero for enforcement of a ferocious federal immigration rule called 287 (g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).”  (p. 200)

“In recent years, the residents of the ballooning Latino neighborhoods growing up somewhere on the other side of the tracks of your town–the places where factory workers and housecleaners and similar manual laborers live–awake in the mornings to find police checkpoints strategically placed on the major thoroughfares to and from the white-people sides of town.”  (p.201)

“ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system.  In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial ‘package’ is.”  (p. 202)

“So the undocumented alien who kills a room full of Rotarians with an ax has a right to counsel, a phone call, and protection against improper searches.  The alien caught crossing the street on his way to work has no rights at all.” (p. 203)

“Over and over again, we hear that if you owe money in a certain way, or if you receive a certain kind of public assistance, you forfeit this or that line item in the Bill of Rights.  If you’re a person of means, you get full service for all ten amendments, and even a few that aren’t listed.  But if you owe, if you rent, you get a slightly thinner, more tubercular version of the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, and so on.”  (p. 319)

“For instance, while the San Diego District Attorney’s Office spent more than a decade sifting through thousands of dresser drawers and bringing felony cases all the way to court for frauds as small as four hundred dollars, executives in the same general area of Southern California, at companies like Countrywide and Long Beach Mortgage, were pioneering the brilliant mass fraud scheme that involved the sales of toxic mortgage-backed securities… Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases.  But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a years, in just one county.”  (p. 323)

“…the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick.  And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere…What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that ‘second government’–a vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors.  These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.”  (p. 324)

“…there’s a direct correlation between need and rights.  The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.”  (p. 325)

“…our legal system does not make sense.  Our legal system is insane.”  (p. 328)

“Month after month, Riverside County runs the same ad [on welfare fraud] and picks six new names each month to advertise.  Like welfare recipients in general, the guilty are overwhelmingly female, and usually nonwhite. ‘They don’t do this to rapists or murderers,’ says Robb.  ‘Not even to pedophiles.  It’s incredible.’ ”  (p. 349)

“If they turned life in the projects into a police state, they turned life on Wall Street into its opposite.  One lie in San Diego is a crime.  But a million lies?  That’s just good business.”  (p. 352).

“…the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process.  The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court… once the bank or debt buyer has that default judgment in hand, it can legally do just about anything to the cardholder.  It can put a lien on his property, it can attach her salary, it can even take his car or her office furniture.”  (p. 376)  ” ‘They make more on lawsuits than they make on credit interest,’ says Linda.”  (p. 382)

“Plenty of people–consumers and merchants both–are probably glad that so much credit is available, but they don’t realize that systematic fraud [by banks and debt collectors] is part of what makes it available…Legally, there’s absolutely no difference between a woman on welfare who falsely declares that her boyfriend no longer lives in the home and a bank that uses a robo-signer to cook up a document swearing that he has kept regular records of your credit card account.  But morally and politically, they’re worlds apart.  When the state brings a fraud case against a welfare mom, it brings it with disgust, with rage, because in addition to committing the legal crime, she’s committed the political crime of being needy and an eyesore. ”  (p. 383 – 384)

“Banks commit the legal crime of fraud wholesale; they do so out in the open, have entire departments committed to it, and have employees who’ve spent years literally doing nothing but commit, over and over again, the same legal crime that some welfare mothers go to jail for doing once.  But they’re not charged, because there’s no political crime.  The system is not disgusted by the organized, mechanized search for profit.  It’s more like it’s impressed by it.”  (p. 384)

“[The] Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee was given a budget of $9.8 million… Meanwhile, that same year the federal drug enforcement budget leaped from $13.275 billion to $15.278 billion.  That meant that just the increase [italics added] in the national drug enforcement budget for the year of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression was roughly two hundred times the size of the budget for the sole executive branch effort at formally investigating the causes of financial corruption.”  (p. 407)

“…in this period of extreme crisis, we not only didn’t allocate funds to investigate the [financial] crash, we actively did increase the budget to tackle street crime, incidentally at a time of declining street violence.”  (p. 408)

If you read all these quotes, you should now be furious at a system that ignores wealthy criminals, evens rewards them, while actively harassing and jailing the poor, quite often for simply being poor.  While disgust of the poor certainly plays a role in their harassment, so does a tax policy that favors the rich.  When local governments do not receive enough money from taxes, they have to make up the loss somehow.  What better way than harassing the poor with nuisance arrests?  It’s a giant scam.

To repeat one of Taibbi’s quotes: “…there’s a direct correlation between need and rights.  The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.”  (p. 325)



A Call to Action

Just as I finished President Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, I heard the news about the killing rampage in Isla Vista, CA.   Here was a perfect example of what President Carter described: a man who used power and violence to punish women.

While religion has not yet been mentioned as an explanation for the killer’s rampage, attitudes in the US have been shaped by religious ideologies that value men over women.   This over-valuing of men permeates all aspects of our culture.  Many laws in the US control women in ways that clearly indicate that the law-makers  do not view women as adults equal to men.  When misogyny is rampant, violence against women is the result.

President Carter is a member of The Elders, a group of ‘independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.’   One major focus of The Elders is on achieving equality for women and girls.   The Carter Center, founded by President Carter and Rosalynn Carter, lists 23 action steps that ‘can help blaze the road to progress’ and end misogyny.

Tony Porter called to men to get out of the Man Box.  The way we socialize men creates violence against women.  It is up to men to challenge and change male culture.  It is up to men to end violence against women.  It is up to men, the many men who truly care about women, to end misogyny. Let us heed President Carter’s and Tony Porter’s Calls to Action and end misogyny now.




International Human Rights Day

December 10, 2012 was the International Human Rights Day, a day that we remind ourselves that far too many individuals still lack basic human rights.  There are 27 million men, women, and children laboring in slavery.  Girls are too frequently denied an education and forced into early marriage when, instead, girls could be powerful forces of economic and political change.

International Human Rights will not be achieved until women have the same opportunities and rights as men; until we have gender equity.  Women’s Rights are Human Rights.

One day each year to remind ourselves that everyone deserves human rights is not often enough. But it is a beginning.

Contraception is a Key Women’s Right

I find it amazing and deeply disturbing that in the 21st century state legislatures in the United States are being inundated with bills (many of which have passed and been signed into law) that seek to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body and well-being.  Without these rights, women will find it very difficult to partake fully in politics and in the economy.  Perhaps that is exactly the goal of this type of legislation: to drive women back into the home where they are trapped by unwanted pregnancy and under the control of their spouse.

We know that the best way for women and children to escape poverty is for the women to have control of their reproduction. Being able to decide if and when she has children provides a woman with the opportunity for education, which allows her to find better-paying work.  Wherever women have control of their reproduction, the birth rate has declined and economic well-being has improved.  Why would legislatures in the United States wish to reverse this trend?  The only reason I can think of is fear.  Fear that women will gain too much power.  Fear that men (particularly white men), will have less of a say in the future.  Fear that they will lose control. Fear is repressive and destructive.

As a counterpoint to fear, Melinda Gates gave a great TED talk this month about the need for contraception.  Granted, her talk primarily dealt with women in developing nations.  But it is clear that what she says also relates to the current political climate in the United States.  It will be quite ironic if NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are able to bring reproductive freedom to women in other nations while here in the United States those same freedoms are being whittled away.

Science is Political

I recently finished reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  Otto co-founded Science Debate 2008 which was an effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on the important science issues affecting the United States.  Despite strenuous efforts, the candidates refused to agree to such a debate.  The only outcome was that the final nominees, Obama and McCain, did finally agree to answer, in writing, not in debate, “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.”   I would like to think that there will be an actual Science Debate in 2012, but given that the only Republican candidate who seems concerned about science and the scientific illiteracy of his fellow candidates is Jon Huntsman, a man who has no chance to be the Republican nominee in 2012, this seems improbable.

Otto’s main thesis is that for the last several decades, scientists, while busy doing science, ignored the erosion of the public’s confidence in science and the rise of a belief system that claimed there is no objective reality; that we each create our own subjective ‘reality;’ therefore, the conclusions of science are only one way of viewing the world, and not necessarily the ‘best’ way.  This flight from objective reality may well be why the United States ranks #23 in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of scientific knowledge.  In addition, the United States ranks just above Turkey in a graph of countries depicting the percentage of the population accepting the validity of evolution, based on research published in Science. The educational system is failing the United States given that the researchers found that percentage accepting evolution actually declined over twenty years.  Otto is convinced that this is because scientists failed to recognize that science is political; that scientists have to write for and speak to the public in language that will make it clear that science is necessary for the future stability, growth, and well being of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood that science was political.  Their goal was to create a country where science could flourish.  They would be appalled to discover that at the beginning of the 21st century, a huge chunk of the population is retreating into the anti-science mysticism of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

One of the key concepts that has been lost in the relativistic present is that there are not necessarily two sides to every argument.  Otto points this out in the following example (p. 10):

Journalism: There are always two sides to every story.  Bob says 2 + 2 = 4.  Mary says it is 6.  The controversy rages.

Science:  Most times, one side is simply wrong.  I can demonstrate using these apples that Bob is right.

Politics:  How about a compromise?  New law: 2 + 2 = 5.”

Journalists create controversy where, based on the scientific facts, there is none.  “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge,’ [John Locke] simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press.” (p.204-05) Such malfeasance is in large measure due to the fact that few media sources in the United States actually have scientifically-trained reporters.  In fact, according to Otto, most media sources have cut or cut out their science departments.  This is in contrast to the rest of the world where science news remains a vital part of media coverage.

Otto also discusses de Tocqueville‘s views of American democracy, published in 1835, after his travels throughout the new country.  While impressed by many things, de Tocqueville also saw cause for concern.  He saw Americans as tinkerers/inventors rather than as thinkers.  The focus was on practicality rather than the search to understand the unknown; i.e. pure research without thought of how it might be used.  “His [de Tocqueville’s] tale [of 19th century China’s retreat from science] suggests the dangers posed by embracing tradition and precedent at the expense of openness and creativity, applied research at the expense of basic science, fear at the expense of wonder, utility at the expense of beauty, and an insistence on financially quantifiable projections before an investment is made, the idea of which runs contrary to the entire process of discovery and creativity.” (pp. 58-9)

“If knowledge does not have primacy in public decision making, then no truth can be said to be self-evident, and we are left with the tyranny of ideology enforced by might (p. 219)…led [by] a generation of leaders that are at once arrogant and ignorant…(p. 134) Ignorance is not bliss.  It’s tyranny.” (p. 252)

Otto points out that scientifically-literate children are most likely to have parents who are scientists or, and this is critically important, parents who are immigrants.  “Fully 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants–a stunning figure considering that immigrants make up only 12 percent of the US population…” (pp. 291-92)

This matters because if the United States continues to restrict immigration and/or makes life difficult for immigrants, these talented students will be lost to the United States, while at the same time providing a ‘brain gain’ to other countries.  If anti-science attitudes continue to prevail in the United States, it will lose the future to other nations, particularly those in Asia.  During the Middle Ages, science burned brightly in the Islamic countries.  But fundamentalist, anti-science views came to dominate in those regions, and science was lost.  To say such a future is not possible in an anti-science United States is arrogant ignorance.