Discussion: Understanding Patriotism

Yesterday, one of my fellow bloggers made a post about how he doesn’t get all the drama surrounding national anthems, whether you stand, sing along, put your hand over your heart etc.  I share his sentiment.  I’m not much for forced rituals that are supposed to have meeting, but seem so common place, overdone, and generally practiced by so many people who don’t even seem to share those values that it just feels superficial.

I’d like to go a step further and say, I just really don’t understand the sentiment that people of your country are somehow more important than people from any other country.  This has been on my mind with the migrant crisis at the border.  You see so many comments from people who at best demonstrate indifference for refugees, to what essentially boils down to disgust.  I can’t for the life of me how the first reaction can’t be one of compassion.  These people are literally dying to get here, being made to suffer in intolerable detention centers because of the conditions that they are fleeing.  Instead of accepting that an entire political party simply uses any excuse to see them as people who need help.  Forget about accepting the fact that we made this problem through our fruitless war on drugs and that we should bear at least some responsibility for helping them now.

And nevermind the fact that when Syrian refugee crisis existed, the most moderate of Republicans well still like…”I won’t take them here, but we can help them over there.”  Meanwhile, I’ve heard when it was suggested that we provide aid to the central American countries as a way of keeping people there, people now say why should we give money to other countries?  Conservatives will talk about all the help American’s need here at home, but they won’t support welfare programs, they don’t put homelessness at the top of their political platforms, they won’t support first responders from 9/11.

I find the disregard for humans in need just insufferable.  Like being American was something most of us tried to do.  It wasn’t a choice, most of us were just born here.  If there is anybody who actually wants to be American it’s the people coming to our borders in need of help.  Accidents of geography are no basis to deny people who are suffering help.  Yet this patriotism banner is being waved like it actually means something.  Just maybe if such people were interested in helping Americans I might just believe it, but it’s all talk.  There are the people who can help, and those that need help.  That’s all.  Nationalism is meaningless to me, unless through that structure you can use that power to make lives better for other people on the planet that sustains us all.

Honestly I just don’t understand.  Anybody else that can help me to understand, I’m all ears.

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Progress and the Monsters that Hinder Us

There is an idea, or perhaps several that I’ve been struggling with for the past few years.  The election of Trump has certainly elevated my thoughts on this matter.  It started as the issue of political correctness became controversial.  There were starting to be more and more rumblings that things had gone too far.  Not just from conservative pundits who complain about every ounce of liberal criticism, but from liberals as well.  Often from satirists and comedians whose life’s work comes from criticizing conservatism and extreme right wing values.

It seems, in my own experience, I start to see more and more people on the left become abusive of the people on the right.  It doesn’t even seem like it’s because they’ve been offended first, but are being offended for other people, and thus feel justified in shaming others.  Now perhaps we have always had a group of people who have been quick to take offense, and that this age of social media has simply brought such people to the fore.  Just as social media has been quick to enhance a culture of shaming which probably already existed.  Perhaps the allure of being able to shame people anonymously and with greater volume is too great for many of us to resist.  Keep in mind,I am not just making a criticism of people on the left here. Because for all their talk about “liberal snowflakes”, if the right was just this “let it slide” group of people who just kept their nose to the grindstone, I think social media would look much different.

The idea that has been bouncing, increasingly more violently in my head, is to what degree we create the monsters we despise, and to what degree to we become them ourselves.  Many of us have listened to or read analyses by various pundits and scholars about how right wing movements are on the rise and there are some who would blame this on the left.  Part of this could be in support of neo-liberalism, but some have suggested that this is due to a more aggressive liberalism that is trying to force a certain viewpoint on others.  An example of that is written in a critique of a New York Magazine piece in Salon.   Look I don’t want to make this another self-examination piece where I am going to blame the left for the ills of today.  I am not going to let off the hook harmful ideologies on the right which have no place in civil societies either. It’s well documented that the right has used fear and misinformation to exploit people and for the most part I feel like the left is simply trying to react to increased levels of irrationality, but not necessarily in a rational way.  Politicians are of course not the only ones to use fear to persuade people.  Corporations and the media all do it as well, and so to a certain degree all of us live at a certain level of fear most who are my age or older didn’t grow up with.

I worry about universities becoming places that disinvite speakers due to social media pressure and protests from students.  Such things are certainly a function of the corporate model that universities are being run as also, but it is a concern that students would be so upset to hear what someone they disagree with has to say to actually prevent that person from speaking.  This article is from 2016 and only in the U.S. but it is happening in the UK as well.  This year we had protests turn violent at Berkeley because of professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and a twice this year a pro-police speaker, Heather MacDonald had talks canceled or dangerously disrupted and was unable to give her talk.  I believe bad ideas fester in the dark.  I would rather have bad ideas challenged in an open forum.  Allowing people to speak at universities doesn’t legitimize their claims, it tells young people that in the real world you are going to face a diversity of views and people that hold them and that you must be able to absorb them and answer them with rational and evidentiary arguments.  

Today, I listened to a podcast, and heard yet another critique of Merkel (from a liberal) for letting in so many refugees and that this is the fuel the right-wing parties need to take over many European nations and possibly lead to the collapse of the EU.  Even if Islamic terrorists acts are small in comparison to the amount of good that helps the refugees opening borders so freely is dangerous.  The overarching argument being that so much compassion leads to a blind spot, where political moderation would be more prudent for long term stability.  From a political standpoint, I find it hard to disagree perhaps, but as an individual who also recognizes the cost of not helping people who are suffering it leaves me feeling helpless.  If compassion leads to the rise of nationalism and racism, and I believe in the value of compassion as one of our most valuable human traits, then I must at least ask the question, “Is it enough if our heart is in the right place?”

Since I believe we can live in a more compassionate society, and that human society has trended towards greater compassion, I want to be able to see that movement continually.  Maybe in the long arch of history it is our fate to take two steps forward and one step back.  And these back steps may be half a human lifetime.  Furthermore, perhaps in some places things go back for longer, while other countries that were back start to move forward.  So globally we may still be moving forward, but all moving at different rates.  The fact remains, that as an individual, while I can be pleased that the average moves forward, I still am not content to let the society that I most directly live in fall back.  What can I do?  How must I behave?  And how can I promote positive behavior in others?

An important part of my journey in life was to understand the brain.  My inspiration for doing so occurred when I met with people who had diametrically different world views, and where no amount of evidence would sway them.  That journey was a great one and it gave me a greater understanding of how people come to believe the things they do.  But I still find that in the everyday things we generally want the same things, and that we are all quite similar, so I find myself wondering how common ground is to be found.  I guess, it is just who I am that I can’t give up on the idea that we are all human and that we have more reasons to work together than to work apart.  And so it is this lens that I find myself wondering, “Even if some minds can’t be changed, how do we make sure that the problem doesn’t get worse?”  It seems to me that 20 years ago, someone like Trump would have been laughed at to the point of just being a lopped off as to one of those crazy eccentrics who runs for president but nobody takes seriously.  Many of us were of that very mindset in the primaries, myself included.  But it also seems to me that the left has changed as well.  I don’t remember a group of people on the left that behaved the way we have seen either.  I don’t remember universities preventing speakers they disagreed with from speaking.  I certainly don’t remember riots over it.  I don’t remember the name calling and the shaming, and the dehumanization of people we disagree with.

It’s perhaps a chicken and the egg, but it seems like as the divide has grown such that the fringes grow too.  In my mind I see this being plausible as a normal statistical distribution morphs into a bimodal one.  Have the terrorists been winning?  Sending the west into a spiral of fear, where the existence of one extreme, requires that we oppose it with another?  Is the “alt-right” a response to an “alt-left”?  Or vice-versa? Are most of us just living in such a state of fear that we, on average, feel a greater need to be part of a certain camp, where it’s “us” against “them”?

There was an excellent little article by George Orwell I read a few months ago, that he wrote in a London newspaper on fascism.  A word we’ve seen a lot lately and reading this article made me realize how easily the word was thrown around then too.  In trying to define the word, the most common definition that he thinks people could agree with is bullying. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can think people who fit the description of a bully, and they aren’t all on the right.  I’ve heard the political spectrum described as a horseshoe and that there is a place that the left and right meet, and that’s at fascism.  Communist Russia and Nazi Germany might have come from different political philosophies, but I think we can agree that the style of governance was very similar in its oppressiveness and cruelty.  The fact remains that no matter how right someone might be the way in which we deliver that truth matters.  If I say it is better for you to be kind.  That statement is true.  But if I, in convincing you, try to shame you, push you around, call you names, surround you with a bunch of my friends and make threats, I think the importance of kindness would be lost.  Yet this is the kind of behavior we see every day: people on both sides being jeered at and dehumanized for being wrong about something.  There are too few attempts to educated and reason.  Plenty of getting angry and ridiculing others.  I maintain the belief that rightness divorced from empathy is ultimately unhealthy, even poisonous at times.  We’ve all been wrong about things, and at times we’ve been ignorant or misinformed about some pretty basic information.  We’ve also been guilty of letting our emotion override our rationality.  This is part of being human.  So even when you believe that someone is wrong about something, even dangerously wrong, it doesn’t make them any less human.   We have easily duped and plastic brains that are subject to the influences in our lives.

As I quoted recently in a post about Sam Harris’ thoughts on Trump, we have two choices in influencing others: conversation or violence.   Is shaming and ridicule conversation?  Or is it more of a violence of the mind?  Even if we can say it is still not violence, it feels like unproductive discourse that will make violence more a necessity.  I am not a pacifists to the point of saying violence is never the answer, but I am constantly going to be looking at how we can avoid it.  Free speech, provided it is not inciting violence, is one of our most important values.  It is the one value that allows us to self-correct peacefully, and challenge ideas that cause harm.

I am not sure how this post will be perceived.  Whether it appears balanced in its criticism.  I guess, it seems to me, that fascism is growing in both political directions and that somehow they are a reaction to each other.   A reaction to fear perhaps, and as fascism grows the fear gets worse.  Can we find a way out of the positive feedback loop?  Maybe the other guy started it, but as the divide grows that origin seems to matter less than trying to figure out how to end it.  As a liberal rooted in all people enjoying basic human rights, I wonder how we defend those values while loving those who attack such values at the same time so that they know those values can improve the quality of life for all.  But one thing is sure to me, if we can’t live by the values we claim to embrace, then a progressive liberal society doesn’t seem achievable.

Opposition and Divisiveness

This is going to be a little bit of a rant, so if it seems like I forgot to breathe at times, don’t worry I assure you I’m alright. 🙂

We’ve all heard the tone of those who voted for Trump, maybe they were third party voters, or didn’t vote at all “let’s give him a chance”, “let’s see how he does”, “I am going to support him since he’s my president”.  As nauseating as this can be, there is something worse to me that’s driving me up the wall.

“You’re being divisive”.

This is hard for me to understand.  Look, there is no question that we are a nation very much divided right now, and we need to, somehow, try to unite as a people.  There is no question about that.  During the past 8 years I heard people say all sorts of ridiculous things about Obama being a socialist, death panels, taking away everybody’s guns, and host of fabricated tales mean to discredit the president and his administration.  I tried presenting counter information without name calling.  I did not see their disagreement as divisive, just somebody who wasn’t informed or had a different point of view.  I never accused anybody of being divisive.

Now all of a sudden everybody on the right is concerned about how divided this nation is, and at that by opposing Trump’s terrible ideas we are being divisive.  When the right said they didn’t like the ACA, did anybody tell them to shut up they are being divisive?  That they aren’t helping?  To get behind the president?

I am a scientist.  I try to base my opinions based on something, and defend my point of view.  Sometimes my information isn’t the best and I own up to it.  But when my disagreement is being labeled as divisiveness, this is pure distortion and I will not take ownership of that label.  I’m not being derisive to people personally, but I will challenge ideas that I think are harmful.  And these people who label me as being divisive were never calling out people on their own side for the same behavior.  I mean if you know a large portion of the country is pro-choice…shouldn’t you tell your pro-life friend to stop posting videos of bloody fetuses on Facebook?  Never seen that happen once.  Never seen a Republican tell the birther’s they were being divisive.  I’ve never seen a Republican ever tell another Republican they are being divisive for posting something that the other side disagrees with.  But all of a sudden liberals are all divisive.  We are the ones causing division.

It’s not divisive to make abortion illegal, to normalize sexual assault, to call scientific consensus a hoax, to label illegal aliens as drug dealers and rapists, to build a giant wall, to freeze immigration on refugees if they are Muslim, to say gay people can’t marry the people they love, to say you are going to lock up your political opponent in jail….an entire campaign run entirely on divisiveness.

And because I not only resist those notions, but can defend those positions with evidence and statistics, that is deemed divisive.

Look, I am not saying their aren’t a great deal of liberals calling people names, or calling Trump names gets us nowhere and is arguably divisive.  But posting tips for activism, pointing out hypocrisy, presenting one’s viewpoint in a reasoned manner should not be seen as divisiveness.  One person, who dropped me off of Facebook, even told me that my divisiveness was of the kind that would lead to war.  And this was somebody who told me that she doesn’t vote for any party that doesn’t support banning abortion and told me Trump would restore morality to the country.

So I’m not sure what you want from me.  If it’s silence, that isn’t going to happen.  I am going to keep presenting what I think are informative and well-argued articles, and I am still going to reasonably explain why I think a certain action or ideology is wrong.  People act like I don’t spend a great deal of time trying to understand other points of view, I’ve reached across the aisle more than anybody has reached across to me to understand my point of view and I’ve actually adjusted a number of my positions on issues as a result of it.

So when somebody who denies the existence of climate change is put in charge of the EPA, or a white nationalist is put on the National Security Council, or a completely unqualified person is put in charge of the Department of Education and you are silent about it.  You are the one being divisive.  You are the one who voted for someone who used divisiveness as a tactic to win your support.  I am speaking out because you won’t, because I feel we will all lose at the hands of the people in charge of government.

And in the end, if you still think that’s being divisive, well then I can accept that, because I have no business being on the side of someone who, if they find my viewpoint disagreeable, can’t engage in civic discourse about it.  I still bear you no ill will, but I have a country to worry about and I really don’t have time for your hypocritical judgment.

Rant over.

Who’s Responsible?

t5d1i

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal responsibility lately and just kind of wondering what it really means.  It’s phrase that gets thrown around a lot, especially in regards to politics.  Conservatives use the term quite a bit but often don’t seem to behave in a way that shows they grasp the meaning or try to determine if it’s actually true.

When I googled the definition it gave me this:

Personal responsibility is the idea that human beings choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions. A corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.

Let’s look at the truth of this statement first.  There are plenty of arguments that can be made to show that this does not reflect life in any way.  Simply because the choices that any one person has in front of them are simply different.  A person living in poverty has a completely different set of choices to make than a person who is wealthy.  Now let’s throw in a genetic background which varies across the human population.  Now let’s throw environmental influences.  now let’s throw in information about how the brain develops and how one can be indoctrinated or brainwashed into a certain way of thinking.  Now let’s throw in levels of education which vary.  We are all conditioned for a certain set of responses that is either likely or more likely, which I discussed in a previous post about free will.  And of course this idea of personal responsibility is used to imply that all poor people are lazy and are poor by choice.

Now even if this notion of personal responsibility was entirely true, why is it that we have a government who shows no personal responsibility?  And I’m talking about both sides of the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans.  We simply don’t have a government that demonstrate personal responsibility.  How often do we hear politicians admitting their own mistakes?  How often do they apologize for the suffering they might have caused?  How often do they apologize for the policies that haven’t worked or been implemented effectively?  How often do they apologize for not doing the things they said they were going to do?  Sometimes I wonder if the reason there is a lack of trust in government in this country has less to do with the fact that they keep doing stupid things, but rather not owning up to the stupid things they do.  I mean seriously would you trust somebody who lacked so much self-awareness that they didn’t even seem to care or notice that they are screwing you or other people over?  I know I wouldn’t?

And that brings me to a bit of a side question.  Would you be more likely to re-elect someone who admitted to his/her mistakes or someone who denied that they made any?  I guess the answer seems to lean towards the latter because it seems we spend so much time trying to prove that someone made a mistake (and yes mistakes when you are in a position of great responsibility can cost people their lives), but do we do that because we know they won’t admit themselves, or were we really expecting them to be perfect?  The rest of us make plenty of mistakes, so does anybody really believe that those we elect are part of a select group of people who don’t make any mistakes?  Isn’t the most important thing that we learn from mistakes and don’t make them again?  Take the Benghazi situation. In hindsight it seems like a lot of things could have been done differently, and perhaps they will in the future, but shouldn’t we expect that with dangerous situations, even a slight error might lead to unnecessary deaths, and that such an error might be made by anyone?  Maybe somebody else might not have made the mistake.  Or maybe somebody wouldn’t have made the mistake 99/100 times but perhaps it just happens on the wrong day where they are more tired than usual and a mistake happens.  I’m not trying to imply that Hillary is guilty of any wrongdoing, but simply that expecting high ranking politicians to be faultless is a ridiculous high bar to set, especially given the high volume and level of decisions they make daily.

It seems to me that we have to allow for some error in judgment.  We should be able to expect politicians to be honest about admitting those errors and thus we can place values on their honesty and their ability to correct their own mistakes.  This to me seems to be an important part of personal responsibility that is missing from our daily lives.  Rich and the powerful always seem immune from the standards of personal responsibility that they hold to the rest of us.   Bill Cosby is a great example of a celebrity who placed himself above this standard, even though he certainly had a lot to say about African-American parents and being personally responsible.  Isn’t there something inherently untrustworthy about a person who does not practice what they preach?  What if Bill Cosby confessed what he had done.  Made some reparations to those he has raped, and turned himself in? We might not like him still, but at least we can appreciate a person who is taking responsibility for the pain that they caused.

In the end, it seems to me that “personal responsibility” is not a philosophy to center one’s self around.  It seems largely untrue, and even if it was true we rarely see it from the people in this world who should be the most personally responsible because of how powerful their positions, their influence, and their voice is. If one wants to believe in personal responsibility then let’s look at the factors that encourage people to be more personally responsible and address those issues instead.