Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Last Days of Barbara Jane Gamble

This is the last photo I have of my mother Barbara looking relatively healthy. It's from August 8.



Here she is with her sister Joyce.😘 We had a very nice lunch along with my visiting daughter, Rowan. (Mom was much more...distractable...that day.)

On August 14, Mom fell (probably her eighth serious fall since early 2019) and badly hurt her elbow and the side of her head. When I took her back to the memory care from the emergency room, I had to practically carry her from the car. 😓

She never really recovered. She started sleeping all day and being up all night.

A week later, at the recommendation of Michelle, the memory care nursing director, and Laura, her nurse practitioner, Mom went on hospice.

Hope Hospice is a wonderful organization, and they swarmed my mom (and me) with love and attention. 💖

On the 23rd, I removed Mom's bed so a hospital bed could go in her room. She was barely conscious of being put into a wheelchair while we waited for the delivery of her bed. The hospice doctor, Matt, was there. He promised to keep Mom comfortable.

On the 28th, Heather, the hospice nurse, called to say my mom wasn't doing well but was stable.

On the 30th, a different Michelle, the nurse on duty. called to update me again. She said I should definitely come see Mom. (This Michelle has a beautiful Jamaican accent. 🇯🇲)

That day was hard. I spent about 90 minutes with Mom. I brought her my teddy bear, Merriweather (given to me when I was in the hospital for two weeks when I was 15), to hold. (I have a photo of her clutching the Bear, but she doesn't look too good in that photo.)

Mom was unresponsive, with shallow breathing and an irregular heartbeat.

Heather came by and confirmed that Mom was transitioning, and we decided to order some morphine and some Ativan. She also said I should tell my Mom it was okay if she wanted to let go. The hospice chaplain, David, also came by, and, at my request, he said a prayer for Mom. 🙏

When I left, I gave Mom a kiss 😚 and told her I'd be back tomorrow.

I never had the chance.

At 1 a.m. on the 31st, Jackie from the hospice called and said that my mom had passed, peacefully, at 11:50 p.m. on the 30th. I waited until the morning to tell Joyce, my brothers, my Dad, Ed, my cousins, and some of my closest friends.

Today, my cousin Tim and his wife Courtney helped me empty out my Mom's room. We took the furniture and the clothes to Goodwill and the rest, including an Afghan crocheted by Mom's mother, Myrtle, and Merriweather the Bear, I brought home.

----‐---------

So ended my Mom's time here on earth. I believe she chose to check out when her quality of life was no longer worth the effort.

While I was able to prepare for this day, especially during the 34 months since Frank Gilbert died and my Mom became my primary responsibility, I'm feeling an incredible heaviness right now.

Barbara was the *best* Mom a man could want. 💝 She had a very good, rich, adventurous life. I'll write more about that later.

Among my more self-centered thoughts: Now that she's gone, what do I do?

Big up to the staff at Cypress Point Memory Care. They loved my Mom dearly (one aide called her "My Barbie Doll") and greatly appreciated her spunk and humor. Also thanks to the first responders and everyone at Gulf Coast Medical Center.

Special shout-out to Joyce ❤ for being there for my Mom and me throughout. She's the best Aunt and sister in the whole world.

And I'm sending another check to the Alzheimer's Association. We need to defeat this scourge ASAP.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I don't hate Trump; I hate Trumpism

I have been having an extended one-on-one conversation with a Trump supporter about what's at stake in this election. Our discussions are sometimes rich and enlightening. However, my interlocutor is a reluctant participant: he often grabs onto excuses to stop discussing substance, sometimes trying to de-legitimize my "facts" because of their source.

(You know: "fake news" and all that.)

But the other day it wasn't about my sources. Rather, it was about me as an impartial or even rational observer.

We were discussing Jordan Peterson's distinction between "collectivist" thinking and focusing on the "sovereign individual." Peterson seems to favor "sovereign individual" perspective. I get the impression that Peterson (and my interlocutor) believe that conservatives (the GOP?) are more attuned to the sovereign individual than are "leftist liberals" who tend toward "collectivist" thinking. (However, Peterson does admit in at least one context that both ways of thinking belong in the conservative mindset and in a well-functioning society.)

(In my view, Peterson here is trying to distance himself from explicitly racist white nationalism, in part by painting his point of view in moderate terms to make it more palatable to a wider audience. Actually, this is not a bad strategy for a scholar to take!)

I wrote to my interlocutor that I have problems with Peterson's implication that Republicans today are superior to "left-liberals" because of their explicit devotion to individualism:

The GOP today, or should I say the “Trump party” today, isn’t as devoted to the individualistic principle as people in the GOP seem to think. I despise the present-day GOP in the ways that it deviates so violently from longstanding conservative principles. The GOP today is a tribal party, which seeks to exclude (to "other", to distance itself from) people who don’t adhere to certain dogmas, not least of which is the dogma that Trump is a “true conservative.” The tribal GOP especially excoriates left-liberal people who identify themselves with a particular identity, such as “feminist,” or “queer,” or “BLM,” claiming that they are, by their allegiance to a "political identity," declaring themselves as “collectivist” in their thinking. (Trump even labels some of these identity groups as "haters, in a classic example of his tendency to project his own beliefs on to others.)  

A less fraught way to describe liberals' identification with certain political identity groups might be "intersectional social justice"

I continued:

A lot of Trump’s rhetoric is truly hateful: for example, his reference in a September 2020 speach to the “good genes” of his supporters in Minnesota, especially when juxtaposed to his disdain for refugees of color (South Asian and African), has echoes of eugenics

Here, as elsewhere, Trump is *using* the (often racist) hatred of his supporters towards others as a political lever to increase or at least shore-up support for him. This, to me, is truly anti-American.

I see additional “collectivist/tribal” thinking in the “America First” rhetoric of today’s Trump party. If the US is, as it has long tried to be, a “beacon of light” in a world of darkness, or a “shining city upon a hill,” then the USA has a duty to work for the betterment of all of humanity. (Forgive me for actually believing in humanity as a collective. I admit this is speciesism, but if I were to focus on all of life or The Earth as a whole, this discussion would become a discussion of environmentalism rather than of Trumpism.) US humanitarianism should apply to a wide variety of world issues and problems, ranging from climate change to supporting democracy, to providing financial and food assistance, and to offering a “refuge” for “refugees” who are fleeing political and economic persecution. These used to be US ideals, not limited to a particular party.

Trump's admitted "nationalism" is tribal in that it sees "Americans" as a special group requiring special protection from the "barbarians" (my word) at the gate. Some say that Trump's nationalism is "white nationalism," but even if it's not exactly that, it does target black and brown people--especially those who are poor--for special "othering."

At first, my interlocutor was more interested in disagreeing with me about my characterizations of Jordan Peterson than my characterizations of the GOP and of Trump. After some prompting, my interlocutor responded to what I wrote:

The first “problem” I see in what you said about the GOP is that it’s become the “Trump party.” Trump did not run on the GOP platform. He ran against their platform. He ran against the establishment with include the GOP and the Democrats. He ran against the Washington thought process and he won against the GOP before winning the Presidency.

Okay...then let's just dispense with the label "GOP" and call it the "Trump Party," i.e. those politicians--in fact, almost entirely from the GOP--who support Trump again and again and again.

My interlocutor continued:

As to your digression into tribalism, I can’t really comment on that because it is itself so divisive. You seem to be demonizing conservatives because you hate Trump so much and I just can’t equate the two that way because of the reasons I already stated.

Now I'm not sure where I "demonized" conservatives. Those who adhere consistently to conservative principles deserve praise. Many of them are principled Never-Trumpers. But so-called "conservatives" who support Trump are, in my mind, abandoning their conservative principles. Trump is no conservative. (On this, apparently, my interlocutor agrees.)

(An aside: if a conservative is very clear that they are ONLY supporting Trump to fill the court with conservative judges, we might cut them a little slack for choosing Trump as the "lesser of two evils" to attain something that they could absolutely never get with a Democratic administration. But if they are using Trump to get judges and also ignoring the many problems facing Americans today (Hello, GOP-controlled Senate and especially Mitch McConnell!), they're just venal opportunists and should be condemned as such.}

Now, what about my interlocutor's claim that I "hate Trump so much" that it causes me to "demonize" conservatives, among other alleged failures of seeing and knowing? The argument here seems to be (and is supported passim elsewhere in the conversation) that I am "blinded" by hate to the point that I can't see that good of conservatism, or the GOP, or Trump.

This accusation is different from the "Fake News" claim. It is no longer about my sources, my values, or my political positions. It makes the argument about hiding behind my negative emotions to hurl unfounded accusations at Trump while refusing to look critically as Democrats and Never-Trumpers.

I find "hate" a dirty word and an ugly reality. Yes, I used it in the conversation. I said that Trump uses the word "haters" to describe members of certain identity groups, including BLM. (This is a fact, not a personal emotion on my part.) I also decried "a lot of Trump's rhetoric" as "truly hateful." I also said that Trump is using the hatred towards others of some of his supporters (and intended supporters) as a political ploy. In speaking their negative emotions out loud, he has become an almost God-like hero. He "tells it like it is," according to some who admire him.

But I NEVER said "I hate Trump," at least not in the conversation that I've been describing. I can't say I've never EVER said "I hate Trump," because I know I have, in fits of anger and agitation.

But I don't hate Trump. That is, I don't hate Trump personally. I don't KNOW him personally, for one thing. I only know the persona that he exhibits on TV and the analysis of that persona by journalists and critics. I also have no need to hate Trump as a person. I can hate the way Trump attempts to fulfill his role as President without hating him.

I do "hate" a good number of the things Trump has done, especially his apparent willingness to lie repeatedly, but also the crass (seemingly disingenuous) ways that he conforms to the expectations of his (potential) supporters, including white evangelical Christians. I hate the ways that Trump has alienated America's traditional allies. I hate the ways that he has cozied up to dictators. I hate his tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. I hate his efforts to undermine the public schools, the ways he demonizes "democrat" governors and mayors and even cities and states, and his administration's intention to void the Affordable Care Act. I hate his efforts to cut environmental regulations. I hate his withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord. I hate his failure to consistently ask Americans to wear masks and to socially distance. I hate his treatment of experts like Anthony Fauci and Robert Redfield. 

In short, I hate Trumpism with as much political passion as I've ever had regarding anything.

There may be some Trump supporters who say that a lot of what I hate in Trump's words is, well, just an words. Instead, look at what he does, they say. They say that Trump isn't really anti-science; that he actually does understand climate change and forest management; that we shouldn't take his anti-refugee rhetoric literally (or even seriously) because he's actually pro-immigrant; that he actually values women and people of color; that he brings financial resources to veterans, non-profits, and poor people. Trump supporters find all sorts of examples of Trump doing honorable things.

I think a lot of this is cherry picking and ignoring the forest for a tree or two. In general, I think the effects of Trump's policies have been terrible for a lot of people. And, like I said, I don't know Trump "behind the scenes." I don't know how he acts when the cameras aren't on him. I don't know what he truly believes. (After all, he was a Republican before he was a Democrat before he was a Republican--or whatever he was when he ran for President.)

Perhaps the writers who claim to know The Donald well and who have been exposing him in recent publications are themselves ignoring the good things he's doing or misstating their experiences for political expediency. Perhaps he's actually kind and generous, humorous, charming, a lover of children and dogs, devoted to the Constitution and democracy, committed to the proposition that all people are created equal, caring about the needs of the poor and of disabled people, and working for wanting quality public education (through choice and vouchers) for all.

Perhaps everything I think I know about Trump and Trumpism is wrong; perhaps I truly am blinded by hatred, and just don't know it. Perhaps I would support Trump if only I could see him as he really is.

How would I know that I'm biased to my core, not seeing the reality of this President? How can I remove the scales from my eyes to see him clearly? What should I watch or read or contemplate to repair my heart and mind?

What do you think?







 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Leftist liberals seek to destroy society and your way of life; conservatives seek to preserve them. Or so says right-wing-darling Jordan Peterson.

I've been having a discussion on the distinction between "tribal" collectivism and the "sovereignty of the individual," as raised in a video featuring Jordan Peterson.

Peterson claims to be a "right wing psychologist." What this means exactly is unclear, but it is crystal clear that Peterson credits conservatives (especially British so-called "Liberal" philosophers) who formally articulated the theory of the "sovereign individual" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Peterson seems to suggest that "leftist liberals" are more "tribal" in their orientation while conservatives are more devoted to the sovereign individual. 

In the discussion with my interlocutor, I pressed back on Peterson a bit. I wrote: 

Another interesting tidbit in the talk is the difference between what [Peterson] calls “collectivist” vs. “individualistic” thumbnail views of social relationships. I agree with the idea that the “individualistic” view was articulated relatively late in history (e.g. John Stuart Mill), and I also agree with the notion that a collectivistic view is similar to what we see among chimpanzees: it’s both ancient and tribal. 

But I think this is muddled in [Peterson's] view, because he holds that the “individualistic” view is morally superior to the collectivist view AND in his mind, more associated with a conservative mindset.

I know that conservatives claim to be devoted to the sovereign individual, but in today's GOP, that devotion is less clear:

Because the GOP defines its “true” members by who they are not (i.e. they are *not* supporters of a “politics of identity”), the GOP has become more collectivist than the Democratic Party. (Just look at the differences in racial makeup of the two parties and their representatives.) So for conservatives (especially those affiliated with the GOP) to declare that they are somehow superior (morally; intellectually) to "leftist liberals" (especially those affiliated with the Democratic Party) because of the GOP's alleged allegiance to “individualistic” principles is, in my view, a joke.

I also see the “collectivistic” thinking of today’s Trump party in the “America First” rhetoric. If the US is, as it has pretended to be, a “beacon of light” in a world of darkness, or a “shining city upon a hill,” then the USA has a duty to work for the betterment of all of humanity. (Forgive me for actually believing in humanity as a whole.) This should apply to a variety of world issues and problems, ranging from climate change to supporting democracy, to providing humanitarian assistance to offering a “refuge” for “refugees” who are fleeing political and economic persecution. These used to be US ideals, not limited to a particular party.

"America First" is a tribal as it gets.

My interlocutor responded that he didn't think Peterson was saying that an emphasis on the "sovereign individual" over the collective was superior. He said that Peterson talks about collectivist values and individual values as being in a "conversation" that has vitality in a democracy. I think that's right to some extent, as in this passage:

Who's right? It depends on the situation. That's why liberals and conservatives have to talk to each other, because one of them isn't right and the other is wrong. Sometimes the liberals are right, because the environment is unpredictable and constantly changing, so that's why you have to communicate. That's what a democracy does. It allows people of different temperamental types to communicate and to calibrate their societies. 

But in other situations, Peterson's discussion of individualism suggest he thinks its a superior view. Here's Peterson in another context:

The notion that every single human being – regardless of their peculiarities and their strangenesses and sins and crimes and all of that – has something divine in them that needs to be regarded with respect, plays an integral role, at least an analogous role, in the creation of habitable order out of chaos. It's a magnificent, remarkable and crazy idea. Yet we developed it.

And I do firmly believe that it sits at the base of our legal system. I think it is the cornerstone of our legal system. That's the notion that everyone is equal before God. That's such a strange idea...But if you look way that the idea of individual sovereignty developed, it is clear that it unfolded over thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years, where it became something that was fixed in the imagination that each individual had something of transcendent value about them. And, man, I can tell you – we dispense with that idea at our serious peril. And if you're going to take that idea seriously – and you do because you act it out, because otherwise you wouldn't be law-abiding citizens. It's shared by anyone who acts in a civilized manner.

This response was typical for Peterson. In the video, when he describes the "collectivist" view, his example is chimpanzees, which Jane Goodall described as "tribal" in that they patrol the borders of their territory and "tear apart" any chimpanzees who aren't from their tribe. He also claims that liberalism tends toward an "atomized society." This seems to be a contradiction between his association of liberalism with collectivism and conservatism with individualism. According to many critiques, an "atomized society" comes more directly from the concept of "atomic individualism" than leftist liberalism.

Again, as he criticizes liberalism but never speaks negatively of conservatism, it doesn't seem like Peterson is trying to balance collective and individualistic views. 

Peterson does denounce the "extreme right," but doesn't see that as conservatism. In his efforts to "balance," he never offers any actual critique of individualism/conservatism (or of capitalism for that matter). Here he is on the relationship between identity politics and individualism:


Here he is again, discussing the "liberal type" of personality:

The liberal types, especially the Social Justice types, are way higher in Compassion. It's actually their fundamental characteristic. You might think, 'well, compassion is a virtue.' Yes, it's a virtue, but any uni-dimensional virtue immediately becomes a vice, because real virtue is the intermingling of a number of virtues and their integration into a functional identity that can be expressed socially. Compassion can be great if you happen to be the entity towards which it is directed. But compassion tends to divide the world into crying children and predatory snakes. So if you're a crying child, hey great. But if you happen to be identified as one of the predatory snakes, you better look the hell out. Compassion is what the mother grizzly bear feels for her cubs while she eats you because you got in the way.  

As far as I can tell, you need conscientiousness, which is a much colder virtue. It's also a virtue that is much more concerned with larger structures over the longer period of time. And you can think about conscientiousness as a form of compassion too. It's like: 'straighten the hell out, and work hard and your life will go well. I don't care how you feel about that right now.' Someone who's cold, that is, low in agreeableness and high in conscientiousness, will tell you every time. 'Don't come whining to me. I don't care about your hurt feelings. Do your goddamn job or you're going to be out on the street.' One might think, 'Oh that person is being really hard on me.' Not necessarily. They might have your long term best interest in mind. You're fortunate if you come across someone who is disagreeable. Not tyrannically disagreeable, but moderately disagreeable and high in conscientiousness because they will whip you into shape. And that's really helpful. You'll admire people like that. You won't be able to help it.

Just to re-emphasize Peterson's preference for the individualistic (or "conservative") personality, he accuses certain liberals of a kind of totalitarianism.

That's the compassion issue. You can't just transform that into a political stance. 

I think part of what we're seeing is actually the rise of a form of female totalitarianism, because we have no idea what totalitarianism would be like if women ran it, because that's never happened before in the history of the planet. 

(See also his video encounter with a feminist.)

So perhaps what Peterson is actually doing in his emphasis on "balance" is arguing with liberals who don't adequately value conservative values.

This is like Fox News claiming it is "Fair and Balanced."

 


But because Peterson styles himself as an objective intellectual, he is sometimes hard to pin down. Some have tried.

As in The Guardian writes: [Peterson's] "arguments are riddled with ‘pseudo-facts’ and conspiracy theories." Again, despite his claims to want "balance," he has become a darling of conservatives. 

No wonder every scourge of political correctness, from the Spectator to InfoWars, is aflutter over the 55-year-old professor who appears to bring heavyweight intellectual armature to standard complaints about 'social-justice warriors' and 'snowflakes.' They think he could be the culture war’s Weapon X.

Peterson continually decries "post-modernism" and the "radical left" but always describes them in quite general and vague terms. His interview with Helen Lewis shows a kind of aggressive and bullying affect that appeals to many conservative men. Indeed, an argument could be made that men are his primary audience. For example, he claims that these trends have meant that our culture hasn't "discussed responsibility in over 50 years." This phrase "our culture" is also used bluntly to make his case: "Our culture confuses men's desire for achievement and competence with the patriarchal desire for tyrannical power. That's a big mistake." He also talks about "the modern idea of patriarchy" and "this whole patriarchy thing" as if that idea is both unitary and also dominated by a radical leftist critique of men. He derides the "modern" emphasis on "power" rather than "competence." He critiques "modern universities" (especially the social sciences) as allegedly dens of radical leftism that are being abandoned by men. He also makes very strong claims about the ways that "institutionally powerful radicals" in universities seek to replace "natural" hierarchies of competence with a "totalitarian" goal of "equality of outcome" in an effort to "remake society in their multi-gendered image."

At the core of his position, though, seems to be the view that any claim of "oppression"--whether systemic or individual--are illegitimate and (according to him) a form of "neo-Marxism."

Despite his stringent derogation of "neo-Marxism" and also "cultural Marxism," Peterson is also strongly and slyly Marxist (certainly a believer in historical materialism) in his orientation, with his commonly expressed view that "technological change" is more important to history than political action by certain identity groups. "In doing so Peterson loses track of the absolutely critical roles that both ideology and, ironically, individual human psychology play in turning some people against their fellow human beings." [source] In other contexts, Peterson seems quite confused about the relationship between Marxist communism and Nazi fascism.

[As an aside, Peterson's claim that "one of the things [he's] strived to do is not to become resentful" is belied by his affect when he says that and (as mentioned by Helen Lewis) the obvious resentment he seems to express on his Twitter feed when responding to critiques of his positions. Peterson's recent struggle to overcome physical dependence on anti-anxiety drugs could be additional evidence of deep resentment, or at least of his admitted anger at the world. Peterson's own resentment is also strongly implied by his use of German "resentment" as an excuse for Nazi atrocities. This attempt to explain Nazism psychologically is an example why Peterson has become a darling of the alt-right (or at least the alt-light, which doesn't necessarily advocate explicitly for fascism.]

In an article in Maclean's, attempts to understand Peterson's "darling" status among certain groups. 

There is no polite way to put this, but since Peterson claims that “If you worry about hurting people’s feelings and disturbing the social structure, you’re not going to put your ideas forward,” I’m just going to say it: Spend half an hour on his website, sit through a few of his interminable videos, and you realize that what he has going for him, the niche he has found—he never seems to say “know” where he could instead say “cognizant of”—is that Jordan Peterson is the stupid man’s smart person.

While one could counter that only an academic would critique Peterson for appealing to "stupid men," his fame among certain resentful men is obvious. Southey continues:

It’s easy to assume Peterson is deserving of respect. A lot of what he says sounds, on the surface, like serious thought. It’s easy to laugh at him: after all, most of what he says is, after fifteen seconds’ consideration, completely inane. But in between his long rambling pseudo-academic takes on common self-help advice and his weird fixation on Disney movies, is a dreadfully serious message.

What he’s telling you is that certain people—most of them women and minorities—are trying to destroy not only our freedom to spite nonbinary university students for kicks, but all of Western civilization and the idea of objective truth itself. He’s telling you that when someone tells you racism is still a problem and that something should be done about it, they are, at best, a dupe and, at worst, part of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy your way of life.

Unless you yourself are a "leftist liberal," in which case Peterson just seems like an apologist for those who want to go back to a time when anyone who claims to be oppressed is just "waaaa."

 
Next topic: Donald Trump hates democracy.




 




Monday, September 14, 2020

Why four more years of President Trump could destroy our democracy

 (Note: I wrote most of this in response to a question from a Trump supporter who seemed honestly interested in what I had to say. But then, the person dismissed what I wrote as "CNN and MSNBC talking points." I don't think that's all this is, and would be interested in hearing from others. I've edited my original responses, and added links where helpful.)

My interlocutor wrote: "I want to understand why and what you think in regards to why you think Trump is destroying our democracy and why do you think he is incompetent to run the country."

So I responded:

The most obvious thing is the way that he is dividing the country: fanning flames of distrust for the media, for the cities, for leaders of the other party, for our intelligence community, for the courts, the Justice department, the Post Office, etc. etc. He doesn't care if people lose trust in him or in government or even in the truth itself. He WANTS people to trust only him. (He's said as much.) A true leader would be a uniter and would be building trust among the people for democratic institutions (of which the media is most important).

Secondly, he's so committed to tax cuts (as you are, it seems) that he's willing to bankrupt the country to give his wealthy friends more money in their pockets. The very rich are getting very richer while the rest of America suffers, and he's passing even more debt on to younger generations. This is the first year in history that the debt is projected to exceed annual GDP. What galls me about this is that the GOP has for decades decried deficits as terrible for the country, and yet, under Trump, the GOP has been totally willing to extend more tax cuts. (Tax cuts, by the way, almost ALWAYS benefit the wealthy most. The oft-repeated theory is that the wealthy will invest their tax savings and boost the economy. What's confusing to many people is that while the wealthy DO "invest" in the stock market when they have more disposable income, the stock market (especially the Dow and even the S&P 500) don't represent the economy as a whole, and while the Dow has broken many records since the huge Trump tax cut of late 2018 (which makes the wealthy VERY happy and even cheers up poor blokes like me with a modest 401K), this hasn't been matched in terms of increases in real wages, income, or financial or health security of most Americans.)

(Democrats believe that the average American's pocketbook is, in the end, MORE important than the average rich person's portfolio.)

Third, Trump has destroyed America's reputation as a world leader. Leaders in Europe and Asia are laughing at Trump (and his leadership). While this might make so-called "patriotic" Americans happy -- because they WANT foreigners to dislike or at least distrust America -- it doesn't improve the world as a whole or into the future. Examples of this "America First" agenda are withdrawing from the TPP, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran, withdrawing from WHO, and threatening the future of NATO, not to mention emboldening Russia and ignoring Putin's efforts to undermine the West. (When did the GOP decide to embrace Putin as a friend of the US?)

Fourth, Trump isn't even a great businessman. He inherited a lot of money. Many of the things he's invested in have gone belly up or have been shut down because of fraud. Many of his most "successful" projects (Trump SoHo, the Trump Tower in Chicago, for examples) have only been "profitable" because they have relied heavily on foreign money (especially Russian money) or because of fraud. (The Trump Tower in Chicago was built with Chinese steel despite pledges that Trump would only use American materials.) I believe that Trump is similarly defrauding the American people, by saying one thing, but doing another, repeatedly, in order to line his own (and his children's) pockets.

To the extent that Trump has done "good" things for America (and while I believe that most of the things you and other Trumpists would list are actually failures of America's best interests, but for now I'll concede for the sake of argument that he's done some good), it's because he has relied on some competent advisors. Among these I'd include Mnuchin as well as FORMER Trump advisors such as Gary Cohn and James Mattis. Many of Trump's initial advisors were stalwarts of the "establishment" GOP, which has some credibility (although I think it will be hard to regain that cred post-Trump). I'm not sure how many of those establishment GOP types are still involved in Trump's administration.

Fifth, so many of Trump's supporters (such as you) will ONLY believe the news when Trump-supporting media report that news. Then, when formerly-Trump-supporting journalists report BAD news about Trump, it's those journalists (not Trump himself) who are blamed for the news. Trump is more "teflon" that Reagan, except that Reagan's obvious moral character and principles EXPANDED his support among the population during his tenure. Except for within his base, Trump has lost support (which was obvious during the 2018 midterms and will be obvious this election as well). Even among Republicans in Congress, Trump's star has fallen considerably (just ask Ben Sasse or Lisa Murkowski or so-called RINO Jeff Flake). Many Republicans rightfully fear a huge loss this November, but they won't speak out against Trump because Trump actually does have a lot of power with his core voters such as you. Why? Well, that leads me to....

My sixth and final point. Trump has political genius. This is demonstrated by his fervent support among certain demographics, who believe he walks on water and who believe that he is a superior president. (Oddly, Trump supporters believe he will go down in history as a superior president and that someone like Obama, or Clinton, will go down as terrible presidents. This is just...frankly...laughable.) Why does his have this power over these demographics? Because he says EXACTLY what those people want to hear. Trump has an "ear" for his audience, which is why he LOVES his "rallies," because then he can test out his political lines and see what excites the audience. Because Trump has ZERO true principles except his desire for power and/or wealth; he'll say ANYthing that gets him power. And his supporters eat it up. Why? Because they (generally) feel that the "political establishment" has ignored them; they feel that the "elites" misunderstand them; and, they feel aggrieved by "reverse discrimination" and the success of recent immigrants (when in fact, the success of recent immigrants is a great American story).

Okay, seventh: one more thing (you DID ask me to tell you these things, so don't get mad): Trump says he "loves the uneducated." This gets HUGE cheers from his adoring crowds. Why? Because, generally, they ARE the uneducated. I don't say this to be mean. It's a FACT that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to support Trump. (There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general trend.) As I've said before, educated people tend to be more liberal. You (and other Trump supporters) attribute this to the "brainwashing" we've received through our educational institutions. NOTHING pisses me off more than when you or others claim (without evidence) that colleges and universities are "brainwashing" students. How the hell do YOU know?!?! Maybe these institutions are actually, you know, "educating" people, opening their eyes, giving them critical thinking skills, opening them up to the lessons of history, teaching them how to interpret statistics and demographics and probabilities. Maybe these institutions form a BEDROCK of American success in industry, science, engineering, the arts, etc. etc. Maybe America is GREAT because we have been committed to education (generally).

Last one! Eighth: COVID19. We can't blame Trump for the emergence of this virus (nor can we blame China, by the way), but Trump's response was terrible by any measure. His claims to have been proactive (e.g. "China travel ban") dissolve quickly when examined. He didn't use the tools available to him (e.g. Defense Production Act) until very late in the crisis and he actively undermined the efforts of governors. And, what's worse, he has sidelined expertise (e.g. Fauci) when the experts don't repeat his talking points. Trump is anti-science and anti-expertise. Unfortunately, many of his followers are also anti-science and anti-expertise. (I think pretty much EVERY American who denies evolution or climate change are pro-Trump.) I'd call these attitudes anti-American, anti-education, and anti-democracy.

In short, for democracy to survive, a nation needs several things. (These things have been identified by thinkers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Amy Gutmann.) A democratic society needs free access to information of all kinds: political, scientific, and historical. This means that a democratic society needs a free press and widespread access to means of communication. It also means that the citizenry needs to be well-educated so that it can interpret available information and form judgments related to it. A democratic society needs transparency in government, as well as checks and balances to prevent the executive, legislative, or judicial functions from becoming beholden to particular partisan interests. One of those checks and balances is freedoms related to speech, assembly, and protest. (Other checks and balances can be written into a Constitution.) Transparency and effective checks and balances lead citizens to trust that the government is actively working toward the public good. Democratic societies also need the rule of law, such that no individual, corporation, or political party is treated differently based on their wealth or access to power. 

One thing that democratic societies DON'T need, and in fact can be destroyed by, is huge inequality in income. Beginning with the Reagan administration, the US Tax Code has been restructured to reduce the share that rich people supply to government, leading to chronic deficits and the constant refrain of so-called "conservatives" that the US can't afford quality healthcare, housing for all, or equity in public schooling. (It's extremely ironic that the GOP strongly supports tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy but refuses to fund public initiatives designed to ensure economic and health security of all Americans.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

On the complexity of liberal education; Or, Is BLM "radical"?

 (Note: this post was written in response to something that someone wrote to me in a private discussion about what it means to be "liberal." That person is a Trump supporter, who generally thinks that liberals are wrong-headed in political perspectives and also revealed as not "really" liberal in the educational sense by so-called "Cancel Culture" and the apparent unwillingness of so many contemporary students to listen to ideas that are different from what they have been taught. I'm keeping that person's identity confidential, simply because the "personal" aspect of my relationship with them could be hurt by a public airing of this disagreement. However, the disagreement has "public" relevance.)

Let's talk about "cancel culture." You used this as an example of how "formal education" does not necessarily open one's mind or make people liberal in their thinking.

"Formal education" is a very broad set of activities and practices, not all of which are actually educational. (As you know, I prefer to talk about "schooling" separate from "education.") A lot of "formal education" (i.e. schooling) isn't at all about opening of one's mind. (I'm assuming you meant "liberal in your thinking" as "not closed minded." I agree.) Indeed, the "liberal arts," which are the part of schooling that does aim to open one's mind to new ways of thinking, has been under attack for decades. It's never been fully embraced, because in the population as a whole, "dogma" (i.e. "thinking rightly," according to a particular set of beliefs and values) is widespread in almost every society (including in the US). Dogma is especially powerful when a population believes it is under threat from external or internal enemies. 

Common among conservatives (although I think it's found among liberals as well) is a fear that society is going to fall apart because of "free thinkers," otherwise known as "the opposition," or "radicals," or "hippies," or even "anarchists." This was the fear (as you know) in the late 1960s, when drug use and sexual experimentation (and anti-war fervor) scared many Americans, leading them to get behind Nixon and his "law and order" message. (I'm not saying "getting behind Nixon" was bad, although it certainly didn't pan out the way some hoped). The dogma ("orthodoxy") of "law and order" leads many to label others in the society as "enemies of the people" or "commies" or worse. You and I probably disagree about how much of a threat these "radicals" really are, or even how radical they really are.

But GOOD education should cause people to question "received wisdom," or "conventional thinking" about "radicals" and the threat that they pose. History includes lots of examples of so-called radicals pushing for societal change that, in retrospect, looks good even to conservatives. The American Revolution is a perfect example. To the Tories, American revolutionaries were "radical" "agitators" who would destroy society with their "liberal" beliefs.

One needs to question contemporary efforts to label elements of our society as "radicals" or "agitators." 200 years from now, will these people seem as radical as they do today? Will we look back on 2020 as a year in which society IMPROVED its treatment of Black people? (I certainly hope and believe so.) A good education would at least open the minds of people to the possible good that can come from the current "agitation." (I, for one, decry the rioters and the violence, but totally support the BLM protests and will defend their basic demands.)

"BLM" is a perfect example of a divider in society, with some claiming in response that "all lives matter" or "blue lives matter," as if "black lives matter" is at all controversial. Many who attack BLM are, to my mind, racists; that is, they believe that black lives DON'T matter as much as white lives, or they believe that it's appropriate for the police to treat black people differently than white people or they believe that there is no difference between "black lives" and "all lives" and that it's BLM itself that is racist.

I know you like to believe that we live (or ought to pretend that we live) in a "color-blind" society that offers equal opportunity to all, regardless of skin color. This is certain central to the "Dream" of MLK, Jr. But MLK didn't believe we had reached this "promised land," and "agitated" to get white people to pay attention to the plight of black people. (The fact that the civil rights movement and the 1960s sex and drug "revolutions" happened at the same time made it hard for many white Americans (and black conservatives) to distinguish the "radicals" from those calling for "civil rights.")

A "liberal" education should, in my judgment, cause the student to question whether the distinctions made "conventionally" or even by the majority are distinctions that ought to be made, or whether it is better to examine the similarities between "radicals" and "civil rights advocates" and figure out whether society as a whole has some re-thinking to do in terms of fairness, opportunity, etc.

Look again at the American Revolution. Some "agitators" were true radicals, in that they believed that the monarchy was an enemy of freedom and opportunity and that a democracy (or "republic") would open up society to innovation and improvement. (History has borne out this view: practically no one in the US or even England believes that a monarchy is better than a democracy. The "radicals" proved to be "right" in their thinking.)

But also among the revolutionaries were many (especially in the South) who were more afraid that the monarchy would destroy their way of life, because in England in the 1760s and 1770s was becoming an anti-slave society, and southern colonists were worried that the monarchy would take away the "right" to have slaves. So they supported the "radical" views of the northern revolutionaries not because they actually accepted the "radical" aspects of those views, but because it was clearly in their self-interest (economically at least) to separate from England. The debates that followed the revolution centered on "states rights," because many in the south feared that the northerners would come after their slaves. (The north did eventually do this, as we know.) But even the Civil War didn't resolve the questions involved; we are STILL to this day debating whether states have the "right" to have laws or practices that discriminate. Indeed, now we have a lot of white people complaining about "reverse discrimination," which is, without a doubt, a "reaction" to policies like affirmative action that are designed to increase equity. There is ALWAYS a REACTION to social change. Always.

Which leads to the inevitable need for citizens to differentiate in their minds between the moral authority of the desired change and the moral authority of those reacting to it. This differentiation, as described above, often appears different from the standpoint of people living in the future than it does to people living in the present. Some (in the present) will, like the southern slave owners, put their self-interest above the interests of everyone, but won't even necessarily be aware that they are doing this. Apologists for slavery, for example, argued (some still believe) that slavery was "good" for African-Americans, because they lacked the "civilization" that freedom requires.

Similarly, I'd argue, many who, at the present time, believe that Black Lives Matter is "hate speech" (I'm thinking of a particular US president that YOU support) are most likely not applying moral principles at all, but are merely expressing their personal self-interest, although often in language that appears to be principled, but is actually just selfishness.

How do we differentiate in our own minds between selfishness and principled behavior? THIS, I'd argue is the very essence of good education in the liberal arts.

Being well educated in the liberal arts does NOT mean that the person accepts all points of view, regardless of the motivations underlying that point of view. A "liberally-educated" person takes stands against points of view that are biased, racist, classist, etc. Taking such a stand may lead, in some cases, to civil disobedience, thus offering more conservative people the opportunity to call them out as "radicals" or "agitators," or even "Marxists." (How that word finds its way into the discussion is itself worthy of deeper study, i.e. good liberal education; but that's a topic for another conversation.)

Back to "cancel culture." As I understand this phrase, it's typically used by conservative people to complain about those who would "cancel" beliefs, people, actions, symbols, etc. that are anti-liberal. I'm quite sure that your use of it in your post was intended in that sense. You believe that "cancel culture" is a bad thing, and a sign of a lack of "open-mindedness" among liberals.

I think the dispute over the Confederate flag is a great example of how "cancel culture" is used. Conservatives complain about NASCAR banning the flag at its events. They claim the "right" to display the flag and go on and on about how it really isn't a racist symbol, but a symbol of southern "heritage." They say that NASCAR has fallen "victim" to "cancel culture" because they chose to ally themselves with more liberal elements of society calling for the flag to be "cancelled."

I don't know how you feel about the NASCAR thing, but there are other examples. Liberals call for people like Tucker Carlson to be removed from his position as a Fox host. For liberals (including me), Tucker is a white supremacist racist with vile opinions that should be banned from public discourse, whether by fiat or by public consensus. (I personally have no doubt that Tucker WILL be fired; it's only a matter of when.) If the public shifts in its values, over time, such that Tucker is no longer tolerated, even by conservatives, will those who continue to support him scream about being "cancelled" by the "liberal elite."? Probably. But who is morally right?

I don't think this is an easy question to answer. Indeed, it's a perfect scenario upon which to base a lesson in the liberal arts. However, if a professor at an "elite" university chooses to focus a lesson on Tucker today, that professor will be condemned by conservatives as yet another example of "cancel culture," EVEN if the professor believes that what's most important is to have students think about the issue from various points of view, and even if the professor has no personal opinion about Tucker. (I can't imagine a professor of the liberal arts who DOESN'T have an opinion!)

Because of the inevitable controversies that would erupt if Tucker were made the subject of a liberal arts lesson today, a wise professor would probably choose a less controversial example. I'm thinking the somewhat less controversial example of the issue of eugenics. Most people (even conservatives) have accepted that eugenics is not a good idea because it can lead to vile choices and it augments evil beliefs about one person, or group, being superior "genetically." (I just want to mention that Trump thinks a reason for his success is his "superior genes." I find that scary, but again, a topic for another day.)

Eugenics is an example of an idea that was WIDELY popular 150 years ago, but which, for a variety of historical and intellectual reasons, is now considered archaic and superseded by less racist ideas. Because it is now generally considered out-of-date, it offers a great opportunity to build a liberal arts lesson relevant to "cancel culture."

As I consider this, I am thinking of a book that came out 30 years ago or so called The Bell Curve. You probably remember it. A Harvard professor and an MIT professor wrote it. It argues that the "bell curve" (otherwise known as a "normal distribution") provides evidence that some people are genetically superior to other people, and offers the suggestion that intelligence tests can and should be used to decide who gets access to resources in higher education and who is, instead, guided to choose a career that doesn't require a four-year degree. When you think about The Bell Curve as offering a way to decide who gets access to higher education resources, it doesn't seem all that controversial. (Indeed, the SAT is used like this.) In fact, you can easily make an argument that not only is it in society's interest to make good decisions about the allocation of educational resources, it's also in each individual's interest. Letting a kid who will not do well into an elite educational institution hurts the institution AND ALSO hurts the kid, because coming out of college with a C- average is not especially good for job prospects, but coming out of a vocational school with a certification as, say, an electrician, offers a solid opportunity for economic advancement and security.

But see how a very controversial idea--eugenics--has, under the scrutiny of two very smart people (the authors of The Bell Curve), been transformed from a vile idea into a practical one? Who's to argue with the practical suggestions in The Bell Curve? Why was the book so controversial?

As an erstwhile professor of education, I thinking reading The Bell Curve, along with some historical readings about human genetics and eugenics as well as some other contemporary approaches to how to handle admissions to an elite school, would make a great lesson in the liberal arts. But I'm immediately forced to ask myself, okay, but for which students? Would such a lesson be appropriate for middle school students? high school students? so-called "average" or "remedial students"? How do you decide questions like this?

Personally, given the state of American schooling today, I would be VERY hesitant to use this lesson with younger students, or even most students at the college level. I MIGHT use it for "honors" students at the undergrad level, and I certainly WOULD use it for graduate students. But aren't I doing EXACTLY what "The Bell Curve" argues for? Aren't I making decisions about "access" to resources based on claims I'm making about the intellectual abilities of different groups of students? Aren't I, myself, being "elitist" in a way that belies my claim to being a "liberal"?

You wrote about the "unwillingness for students to listen to ideas that are opposed to what they're taught." I agree with you: this is a problem. I wouldn't want to use the lesson I just described with a group of students who had been taught that the intellectual differences among students should ALWAYS be used to make educational decisions. And that, unfortunately, applies to the vast majority of American students, who have gone to high schools where students are routinely separated into different "ability groups" based upon prior grades and, often, test scores. For the typical American student, those who are selected for "honors" classes DESERVE to be in those classes because they have "earned" it through being extra intelligent or extra good in academics, and students who are placed into "remedial classes" DESERVE to be in those classes because they haven't shown intellectual ability or academic discipline. And, what's more, many will argue, the remedial classes are BETTER for those students, because they can be taught in a manner that is better for them, along with other students who won't make fun of them for their lack of knowledge or ability. Putting a bad student in an honors class is a terrible thing to do to that students' self-esteem, etc. etc.

Who's right? I'm not entirely sure. There are strong arguments on both sides. These arguments range from moral considerations (what's the right thing to do) to practical considerations (what works "best") to even what I'd call "conventional" considerations (what have schools been doing historically).

The reason I said that I would only probably use this lesson with honors undergraduates or graduate students is because I'm fairly sure that those students either HAVE experienced opportunities to consider such complicated questions or have the MOTIVATION to struggle with them. (I'm thinking here about graduate education students, who wanted to pass my philosophy of education class so they can get a teaching certificate; they are motivated. However, in my long experience, such a lesson will be very difficult to pull off EVEN among the graduate education students because, frankly, most of them haven't gotten very good educations themselves.)

Indeed, I found, in my years of teaching education students (i.e. those who wanted to go into teaching), that it is very difficult to know what will "go over" with students and what, instead, will lead them to rebel (or, more likely complain, whether immediately or on course evaluations). Education students are deeply conflicted, as a group and often individually, about what topics should be discussed in their teacher education classes, and subsequently what topics should be taught once they have their own preK-12 classes. Most teachers learn, after a while, to stay away from truly controversial topics and to stick to more conventional topics/content. (An example is above, when I said I probably wouldn't conduct a lesson these days  about Tucker Carlson.) In the United States, especially, with so-called "local control" of schooling, it's quite dangerous for a beginning teacher to attract controversy before they are tenured, and the system works hard to "conventionalize" teachers during their probationary period. It's a rare teacher who GETS tenure in an American public school who will implement controversial lessons. Whether a teacher can get away with attracting controversial depends on many things, especially the overall qualities of the parent population, because school administrators aim, for the most part, to avoid parental complaints. (Parents of students in "honors" classes might be less likely to complain about difficult or controversial topics. Some parents might really want teachers to focus on "basic skills" rather than "liberal arts," or might believe that teachers have no "right" to offer opportunities for students to have political ideas different from the parents' own. Like I have said, this is very complex.)

Okay, enough for now. Next topic: whether "spreading money around" can solve social problems.