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Archive for the ‘U.S. Domestic Affairs’ Category

“Seven Forbidden Words” – An Analysis (date) by Lawrence Davidson

 

 

Part I – On the Uses of Censorship

 

There is a scene in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984, where the protagonist, Winston Smith, is having a conversation with a philologist by the name of Syme. Syme is involved in a government effort to restructure the language spoken by the novel’s upper classes, those who have power or work for the ruling party. The language is called “Newspeak.” Syme’s job is to get rid of dangerous words. Here is how he describes his task: “We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. … The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime [having unorthodox thoughts] literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

 

Now let’s shift to another scene, not a literary or fictional scene, but a probable real life one.

 

Sometime in the month of December 2017, somewhere in the bowels of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., a high-level appointee of the Trump administration moved to take ideological control of the agency’s budget-writing process. This official presented a directive to the agency’s departments, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), listing seven words that were not to be used in budget preparation. If they were, they would be flagged and the document sent back for “correction.” The seven “forbidden” words are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

 

The higher-ups at the HHS have insisted that there is no “ban” in place. Departments like the CDC can still do research in areas to which these unwelcome key words relate. But this disclaimer is misleading. To do the research you need money, and the money comes from the budget. The “discouragement” of key words is meant to marginalize their related research agendas. If fully effective, this attempt at censorship – for that is what it is – could contribute to undermining several generations of cultural progress, and challenge the “science-based” methodology that serves as a foundation for the modern world.

 

We already know that President Trump has no time for facts that differ from his personal worldview. That is why the U.S. is not part of the “science-based” treaty to slow down global warming. We also already know that he does not think minorities (both racial/ethnic and sexual) deserve protection under the law. These and other prejudices, worn so publicly by the president of the United States, have let loose a revolt of religious and social reactionaries, perhaps numerically represented by the 33% of Americans who approve of Trump’s performance. These folks would take the country back to a time of discrimination, segregation, and scientific know-nothingness. And for Trump these folks are the only ones who really count. He has recently declared that unfavorable polls are “fake news.” This is Trump “making America great again.”

 

It appears that one way Trump and his allies think this can be done is by censoring the language used by the people in power and those who work for them. As the computer engineer and writer Jem Berkes points out in reference to 1984, “the ultimate aim of Newspeak is to enclose people in an orthodox pseudo-reality and isolate them from the real world.” Sounds a lot like what is happening at HHS.

 

Part II – Can Censorship Work?

 

Can this work? It probably already has among the roughly one-third of adult Americans who are sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s ultimate aims. These include many Christian fundamentalists and various racist conservative sects, the Alt-Right and Fox TV talking heads. Among those who are of the opposite point of view, both cultural and political progressives, there is no chance that this proposed “orthodoxy” will go unchallenged. Many of this latter group are old enough to remember what the president’s “great America” once looked like – for instance, what life was like before the civil rights acts. And many of those who can see through Trump’s double-talk, of whatever age, have an instinctive preference for equality, fairness and clear thinking.

 

However, between these two opposing groups lies the insulated masses – the millions who pay little attention to politics and know little of the importance of science. These folks, focused on their day-to-day concerns are essentially isolated in their localness. They have no sense of what is presently at stake, and therefore find it difficult to think critically about the Trump agenda. For this group, skewing language may well result in skewing their worldview. It is probably from the thinking of this segment of the population that Trump and his agents want to ultimately eliminate the values represented by the “seven forbidden words” and all that they mean for social policy.

 

Thus, the end game is no more thinking of society and its problems in terms of a citizen diversity, minority vulnerability, or entitlement based on proven need. For instance, citizens are not to think that sexual minorities are in need of legal protections. Indeed, the country’s LGBT population turns out to have less right to protection than an unborn fetus. In addition, citizens are to no longer to pay heed to evidence-based and science-based arguments when they may call into question the practices of alleged societal customs.

 

Part III – Donald Trump’s Use of Language

 

You might find the scenario laid out above farfetched. Yet it correlates well with the way Donald Trump uses language, as well as his devaluing of any objective standard for truth. Thus, President Trump’s persistent combination of gross exaggeration and “alternative facts” gives many of his public statements an Orwellian odor.

 

In his ghost-written book The Art of the Deal, Trump is quoted as stating that “if you tell people a lie three times, they will believe anything.” No doubt he has told himself this more than three times, for he now seems to live his public life by this tenet. There are fantastic and untrue self-aggrandizing claims such as, because of the changes Trump is initiating, “our children will grow up in a nation of miracles,” and “we have done more in five months than practically any president in history.” There are also fantastic and untrue negative claims such as some 3 million votes were cast illegally in the presidential election – all of them apparently for Hilary Clinton, and “[President] Obama founded ISIS, literally.”According to the Washington Post’s Fact Check project, “President Trump has made 1,318 false or misleading claims over [his first] 263 days [in office].” Many of these claims are repeated over and over again – significantly more than three times.

 

Part IV – Conclusion

 

Forbidding specific terminology from the budget language of HHS departments constitutes one avenue of attack against those who refuse to believe Trump’s innumerable lies. You might not believe his fantasies, but you are not to use “evidence-based” counter-arguments if you operate within the executive branch bureaucracies he ultimately controls.

 

Of course, the implicit censorship inherent in ideology has always played a role in U.S. politics. And, the ultra-conservative ideology behind the “seven forbidden words” gambit has been around for a long time. It dominated economic policy until the New Deal and social policy until the Civil Rights Movement. By modern standards it brought disaster in both realms. So why would anyone want it back? Maybe because the aims of greater economic and racial/ethnic equality make some white citizens feel disempowered and uncomfortable. One way to address that discomfort is to turn the clock back. To do this, you just restructure reality by labeling those parts that you don’t like as “fake.” Trump does this almost daily.

 

The strategy of eliminating the official use of words like “diversity,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” “evidence-based,” “science-based,” and “fetus” is part of this effort to turn the clock back. Maybe then, so the story goes, with no words to express these concepts, the uncritical minds of our time will be – as Syme the philologist predicts – unable to think unorthodox thoughts.

College Sports and the Corruption of Education – An Analysis (9 December 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

 

Part I – Corruptive Sports

 

There is an old saying when it comes to college sports: “they are played not quite for fun, and not quite for money.” Of course, that sentiment is supposed to apply to the players. It certainly does not apply to the college administrations and athletic departments which nurture these sports. For the schools with “big name” teams, college sports is all about the money. In the U.S.“the 231 NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Division 1 schools that make income data available generated a total of $9.15 billion in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year.” At least 25 U.S. schools make almost or more than $100 million a year. We are talking about money generated directly or indirectly by the teams themselves, and we all know about the corruptive power of that sort of cash.

So how would that corruption work? We are not talking about gambling schemes and fixing games here. But, as it turns out, we are talking about fixing the “eligibility” to play of “student” athletes. According to the academic eligibility rules used by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, student athletes must maintain between 90 and 100% of the minimum GPA (Grade Point Average) required for graduation at the school they attend. Freshman athletes need 90% to be eligible to play their sport, sophomores need 95%, and then it is 100% for juniors and seniors. OK, that is a bit of a break already, at least for the freshmen and sophomores. And maintaining a minimum GPA should not be that hard. However, with all the money at stake for the institution, most of these schools do not want to take any chances about high-performing athletes staying eligible.

The result of this pressure was laid bare by a New York Times article of 14 October 2017. It appeared in the Sports Saturday section and was entitled “N.C.A.A. Declines to Punish North Carolina for Academic Fraud.” It seems that for nearly the last twenty years the administrators of the highly regarded University of North Carolina were “running one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history, involving [200] fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility.” However, the university was not penalized by the N.C.A.A. because the organization has no rules against fraudulent classes as long as they are not open only to athletes. In this case, although really designed with student athletes in mind, the “paper” classes were technically open to everyone. “Similar misconduct has been alleged at Auburn [in Georgia] and Michigan.”

No one at North Carolina has lost their job, and no student academic records have been reviewed. The embarrassment of it all did move the administration to “correct” these “academic irregularities.” Yet the school representatives will still argue with you about the term “fraudulent.” Mark Merritt, the university’s general counsel, says that “the fact that the courses did not meet our expectations doesn’t make them fraudulent.” But, of course, he is dissembling. These pseudo-courses did meet expectations: keeping the money coming in by keeping athletes unable or unwilling to also be students on the field.

 

Part II – The Fans

 

How is it that college athletic teams are so popular that they can generate this level of wealth? The answer involves our instinctive need to identify with, and cheerlead for, a group we have made our own. The intensity of this proclivity varies with individuals, but generally we all feel the need to some extent. And, when we really get into the role of cheerleader, that which we identify with becomes an extension of ourselves. Its fate becomes our fate.

The number of candidates for your enthusiasm is very large. They can be religious, political or cultural organizations. They can range from a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post to the community glee club. Or it can be that fondly remembered college you graduated from, now symbolized by its sports teams.

It must be pointed out that such wholehearted identification isn’t entirely misguided. For instance, devoted followers of sports teams do get something, besides overpriced tickets and team paraphernalia, for their money. Daniel Wann, a psychology professor who has made a career researching the mind-set of sports spectators, tells us that there is a correlation between identifying with a sports team and a sense of psychological well-being. “Higher identification with a team is associated with significantly lower levels of alienation [and] loneliness, and higher levels of collective self-esteem.”

Colleges with popular sports teams have simply learned how to turn the satisfaction of this psychological need into a $9 billion-a-year niche industry.

 

Part III – Sports Teams and the Nature of Education

 

Unfortunately, there is a downside. When it comes to the enthusiasm around college sports, the notion of education gets lost. Thus, it seems not to have occurred to most college sports fans that whatever satisfaction they might derive from supporting their teams, they are simultaneously helping to undermine the education of the players.

This situation is, in good part, a consequence of the fact that the very definition of a college education and, indeed its ultimate value, has been long under question. It used to be that relatively few went to college and those who did went for a “liberal education.” For the first two years of what then was a four-year degree program, one took a mandatory sampling of courses in the arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities. Having a taste of the breadth of knowledge out there, the student then spent the last two years specializing, or “majoring,” in their chosen field: history, English, anthropology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, economics, aspects of art, music, etc.

This traditional, non-vocational, approach to education ran into trouble in the 1960s, an unsettled time when a lot of revered traditions were being questioned. At that time the complaint arose from students, parents, and that anomalous category known as employers, that colleges were not teaching anything “useful.” In other words they were not adequately preparing students for the job market. As a result, increasing numbers of colleges, urged on by state governments, did away with the liberal arts approach to education. As they did so, education itself, at least as traditionally understood as a broad introduction to a world of knowledge, ceased to be the goal.

In the resulting new vocationally oriented environment in which career preparation took center stage, traditional standards of educational judgment deteriorated. For instance, grade inflation became rampant, reflecting an administrative notion that the student is really a consumer who needs to be satisfied with the “product” the college is peddling. As time went on, a process of confirmation bias occurred as both administrators and faculty who had bought into this new “business model” of education, replicated themselves in new hires.

That is the background against which the University of North Carolina could devise and then run, for nearly twenty years, “one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history.” You see, most of the athletes in those fraudulent courses were in school for the vocational purpose of moving into professional sports careers. For them, the playing field was (and still is) the only classroom that mattered. And the pseudo-courses? They were, shall we say, a form of grade inflation. The fans, when they noticed at all, seemed to take the irregularities in stride.

Thus, within the context of the modern commercial culture of the United States, the vocational nature of college sports is really “normal.” These sports also make barrels of money for the sponsoring institution and give a lot of people something to cheer about. Isn’t all of that worth twenty years of fraud?

War Culture – Gun Culture: They’re Related – An Analysis (8 October 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

 

Part I – Vietnam and America’s War Culture

 

If you go to the Wikipedia page that gives a timeline of U.S. foreign military operations between 1775 and 2010, you are likely to come away in shock. It seems that ever since the founding of the country, the United States has been at war. It is as if Americans just could not (and still cannot) sit still, but had to (and still have to) force themselves on others through military action. Often this is aimed at controlling foreign resources, thus forcing upon others the consequences of their own capitalist avarice. At other times the violence is spurred on by an ideology that confuses U.S. interests with civilization and freedom. Only very rarely is Washington out there on the side of the angels. Regardless, the bottom line seems to be that peace has never been a deeply ingrained cultural value for the citizens of the United States. As pertains to foreign policy, America’s national culture is a war culture.

It is against this historical backdrop that the recent Ken Burns eighteen-hour-long documentary on the Vietnam War comes off as superficial. There is a subtle suggestion that while those American leaders who initiated and escalated the war were certainly deceptive, murderously stubborn and even self-deluded, they were so in what they considered to be a good cause. They wanted to stop the spread of Communism at a time when the Cold War defined almost all of foreign policy, and if that meant denying the Vietnamese the right of national unification, so be it. The Burns documentary is a visual demonstration of the fact that such a strategy could not work. Nonetheless, American leaders, both civilian and military, could not let go.

What the Burns documentary does not tell us – and it is this that makes the work superficial – is that none of this was new. Almost all preceding American violence abroad had been rationalized by the same or related set of excuses that kept the Vietnam slaughter going: the revolutionary War was about “liberty,” the genocidal wars against the Native Americans were about spreading “civilization,” the wars against Mexico and Spain were about spreading “freedom,” and once capitalism became officially synonymous with freedom, the dozens of bloody incursions into Central and South America also became about our “right” to carry on “free enterprise.” As time went by, when Washington wasn’t spreading “freedom,” it was defending it. And so it goes, round and round.

Understanding the history of this ghastly process, one is likely to lose all faith in such rationales. However, it seems obvious that a large number of Americans, including most of their leaders, know very little of the history of American wars (as against knowing a lot of idealized pseudo-history). That is why Ken Burns and his associates can show us the awfulness of the Vietnam war to little avail. The average viewer will have no accurate historical context to understand it, and thus it becomes just an isolated tragedy. While it all might have gone fatally wrong, the American leaders were assumed to be well intentioned.

Describing the Vietnam War in terms of intentions is simply insufficient. In the case of war the hard-and-fast consequences of one’s actions are more important than one’s intentions. The United States killed roughly 2 million Vietnamese civilians for ideological reasons that its own leaders, and most of its citizens, never questioned.

Most of its citizens, but not all. There was, of course, a widespread and multifaceted anti-war movement. The anti-war protesters were, in truth, the real heroes, the real patriots of the moment. Along with the accumulating body bags, it was the anti-war movement that brought an end to the slaughter. However, once more Burns’s documentary comes off as superficial. Burns leaves the viewer with the impression that the only truly legitimate anti-war protesters were veterans and those associated with veterans. But those were only a small part of a much larger whole. Yet the millions of other Americans who protested the war are essentially slandered by by Burns. The documentary presents them as mostly Communist fellow travelers. We also see various representatives of that non-veteran part of the movement apologize for their positions. There is the implication that the movement had bad tactics. Here is an example: one of the points that the Burns documentary makes is how distasteful was the labeling of returning soldiers as “baby killers.” Actually this did not happen very often, but when it did, one might judge the charge as impolitic – but not inaccurate. You can’t kill 2 million civilians without killing a lot of babies. If we understand war in terms of the death of babies, then there might be fewer wars.

U.S. leaders also sent 58,000 of their own citizens to die in Vietnam. Why did these citizens go? After all, this was not like World War II. North Vietnam had not attacked the United States (the Bay of Tonkin incident was misrepresented to Congress). The Vietcong were not Nazis. But you need an accurate take on history to recognize these facts, and that was, as usual, missing. And so, believing their politicians, the generals, and most of their civic leaders, many draftees and volunteers went to die or be maimed under false pretenses.The inevitable post-war disillusionment was seen by subsequent U.S. leaders as a form of mental illness, and they labeled it “the Vietnam Syndrome.” The “syndrome” was as short-lived as popular memory. In March of 2003 George W. Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses and U.S. forces proceeded to kill half a million civilians.

In the end, American behavior in Vietnam was not just tragically flawed – it was criminal. But it was also historically consistent – an expression of a long-standing and deep-seated war culture, a culture that still defines the American worldview and has become the very linchpin of its domestic economy. That is why the wars, large and small, never stop.

 

Part II – A Gun Culture to Complement the War Culture

 

America’s propensity to violence in other lands is but one side of a two-sided coin. Callous disregard for civilian lives abroad is matched by a willful promotion of violence at home. That willful promotion is the product of a right-wing ideological orientation (stemming from a misreading of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) that demands a nearly open-ended right of all Americans to own an almost unlimited number and types of firearms.The result is gun regulation laws that are embarrassingly ineffective.

Again, the consequences of this position are much more profound than any claim that its supporters’ intentions are to defend citizens rights to own guns. Since 1968 about as many Americans have been killed in-country by gun violence (1.53 million) as have died in all of America’s wars put together (1.20 million). The numbers are too close to be dismissed as coincidence. Both reflect a culture of exceptionalism that grants at once the United States government, and its citizens, extensive rights to act in disregard of the safety and security of others.

You would think Americans would recognize an obvious contradiction here. You cannot maintain a safe population and, at the same time, allow citizens the right to own and, largely at their own discretion, use firearms. Nonetheless, some Americans imagine that they have squared this circle by claiming that their guns are for “self-defense” and therefore do make for a safer society. This is just like the U.S. government’s constant exposition that all its violence is committed in the name of civilization and freedom. In both cases we have a dangerous delusion. Ubiquitous gun ownership makes us unsafe, just as does the endless waging of war.

The inability to see straight is not the sort of failing that can be restricted to one dimension. If you can’t grasp reality due to ideological blinkers or historical ignorance, you are going to end up in trouble both at home and abroad – not just one place, but both. And, the more weaponized you are, both as a state and as a citizen, the greater the potential for disaster. In the end the United States cannot stop killing civilians abroad unless it finds the wisdom to stop killing its own citizens at home – and vice versa. That is the U.S. conundrum, whether America’s 320 million citizens realize it or not.

Donald Trump’s Evolving Mass Movement – An Analysis (18 September 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

In the Sunday, September 10, issue of the New York Times (NYT) there are two editorials that have to do with Donald Trump and his supporters. One is entitled “The Trump Fever Never Breaks” and the other is “President Trump’s War on Science.” As we will see, the two pieces actually address different aspects of a single evolving phenomenon. However, we will examine each in turn and tie them together as we go.

 

 

Part I – Trump Fever

 

 

The piece on Trump fever was written by Katy Tur, a correspondent and anchor for NBC. She covered Trump for “500 days” running up to his election and notes that “his supporters were tired of everything except him. And that is still true.” The sense she got, and obviously still has, is that Trump’s base will never abandon their man no matter how much he lies or fails to deliver on his promises. Even occasional contradictory behavior on his part is not a fatal problem – for instance, Trump’s recent double-dealing with the Democrats over immigration. If Tur is right, Trump’s core supporters will just rationalize it away.

 

We can estimate how many of these core supporters there might be. As of early September, Trump’s approval rating was 37% of the voting public. There are about 200 million Americans who are registered to vote, but on a good day just half – often less – actually show up at the polls. For the sake of argument, lets say the 37% is of the 100 million who may actually vote. That puts Trump’s base, the ones Tur is writing about, at roughly 37 million. That is a pretty big number of folks who are so enamored of Donald Trump that, to use his own words, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue [in New York City] and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

 

Is that really the case? Can that many people collectively suspend rational judgment about a leader more or less permanently? Historically, the answer is certainly yes. And, it is certainly not a uniquely American phenomenon. In any given population you will have a percentage who see themselves as alienated from the main facets of culture. These are people adrift, who no longer feel affinity with the prevailing political structure. They are, in their own eyes, abandoned by society – and deeply resentful of this status.

 

In the case of the United States this condition can be multiplied out beyond the Trump camp.You can find people who feel abandoned in this way on both the political right and the left, among a multitude of ethnic minorities, and among folks who derive this feeling based on their geographic area and its cultural idiosyncrasies or economic woes. That probably adds up to more than 37 million Americans (the total U.S. population is a little over 323 million). However, 37 million seem to have found in Donald Trump a charismatic mouthpiece for their frustrations. As such, he is more important to them than the U.S. Constitution and the governmental system it has generated. Indeed, his words carry more weight than the rule of law.

 

In fact, what we are witnessing is the coalescing of a classical type of mass movement of true believers following an adored leader. And, as suggested above, 37 million people constitutes a lot of mass.

 

Part II – Irrelevant Science

 

 

In their search for a new America, one that allows them a sense of belonging rather than alienation, the zealots making up this incipient mass movement are unconcerned with what underpins traditional America. This unconcern is reflected in the fast and loose way both they, and Trump himself, play with facts. Thus, factual descriptors of reality, in this case science and its investigations, are of little account and, if necessary, can be cast away.

 

 

This brings us to the second NYT editorial – the one about “President Trump’s War on Science.” This piece is the paper’s own editorial and thus unsigned. It represents a rundown of how the Trump administration is systematically dismantling all federally funded scientific programs that could add to the cost of production or otherwise interfere with a multitude of polluting industries.This is being done even though the consequence, as the NYT puts it, is that “the future isn’t going to be nearly as promising for ordinary Americans as it should be.”

 

 

As an example, we can take the future of citizens of the Appalachian region of the U.S. The editorial describes how the Trump administration stopped a study into “increased rates of birth defects, cancer and other health problems among people living near big surface coal mining operations in Appalachia.” It seems that proving such a correlation would certainly harm the coal industry that Mr. Trump promised to sustain. Do his supporting zealots take any notice? Well, take a look at the picture that accompanies Ms Tur’s essay. It is a photo of devoutly screaming Trump supporters at a rally in Huntington, West Virginia – not far from where the coal industry “blows the tops off mountains to get at the underlying coal seams.”

 

 

It would seem that for those in Trump’s incipient mass movement, interest in health-related science simply does not exist. The reasoned words of a scientific investigation, even one demonstrating the source of a population’s physical illnesses, can be ignored. They can even be scorned if they appear as the product of a despised anti-Trump camp. Thus, in today’s Appalachia, science simply does not have the same resonance as the words of Trump the propagandist saying he shares the population’s sense of economic betrayal, and will redeem their lives through a “job boom fueled by ‘clean, beautiful coal.’” It matters not at all that science suggests that there is no such thing as economically feasible “clean, beautiful coal.”

 

 

Part III – True Believers

 

 

The 37% of the American population who still support President Donald Trump are evolving a consciousness more responsive to political propaganda and socio-economic mysticism than to rational debate or fact-based policy formulation.They no longer care about the latter approaches because they seem to hold no promise for them. These people are neither Republicans nor Democrats – they are instead the true believers of a political evangelist.

 

In her editorial Ms Tur seems to realize that this is the case. She points out that during his campaign Donald Trump could tell the most outrageous lies (Mexico is exporting its rapists to the U.S.), insult war heroes (John McCain) and “gold star” families, insult entire religions (Islam) and esteemed religious leaders (the Pope), make racist remarks about a federal judge, and even insult the entire female half of the human species by bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. He could do all of this and still get elected.

 

In the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump got approximately 45.9% of the votes cast. Today he hasn’t got that sort of support. However, the core base, that approving 37%, is still there. And it is mutating into a mass movement of zealots who are devoted to and unquestioning of their leader. How President Trump wants to use, or manipulate, this following is still not clear. But what is clear is that this is a phenomenon with dangerous precedents and it needs close watching.

Labor Day 2017 – An Analysis (6 September 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

Part I – Job Satisfaction at the Heart of Capitalism

 

We have just celebrated Labor Day weekend (September 2, 3, 4) in the United States, the very heartland of capitalism. Apropos of the holiday, I happened to have run across a July 2016 survey with the original paradoxical title, “Job Satisfaction Hits a 10-Year High – But It’s Still Below 50%.” What the survey reports is that “just under half (49.6%) of U.S. workers surveyed reported they are satisfied with their jobs.” These are workers in “traditional jobs,” which are typically eight-hour-a-day employment at conventional job sites. The report then compares this “just under half” rate to the reported job satisfaction of “independent” workers – those self-employed or working in an autonomous or semi-autonomous way. The reported satisfaction level of these “independent” workers was 65%.

 

The first number is downright depressing and the second is not very impressive. Also, consider what the report attributed the improvement (compared to say, 40% satisfaction in 2010 for traditional jobs) of the low satisfaction numbers to: “a decline in layoffs, stronger wage growth and expanding job opportunities [expanding labor market].” None of these factors addresses what ought to be one of the major, and obvious, goals of work – the fulfillment, as far as possible, of individual human potential. Or, to state it another way, providing avenues for the individual to “be all he or she can be.”

 

 

Part II – What Is an Economy?

 

 

The conventional definition of an economy is a system of “production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.” Historically, this definition of the way human beings produce and apportion both the necessities and accessories of life has proven incomplete, because it makes no reference to the psychological human need for being creative through labor.

 

This psychological need for realizing one’s potential in this fashion might not have been satisfiable as long as economies were operating in a subsistence environment. Later, when the division of labor became elaborated, this sort of satisfaction probably became possible for a select few. However, in a post-industrial economy the ability to realize, as far as possible, human potential through economic activity should take a big leap. What is required is a government’s will to regulate the use of surplus capital toward this end, along with an educational system that prioritizes this goal.

 

Part III – A Psychological Necessity

 

This is not just pie-in-the-sky idealism. We are talking about a part of the human psyche that demands attention.

 

Consider the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow lists five categories of human needs:

 

Starting with (1) those most basic to survival. These are physiological needs, such as food and shelter.

 

Next come (2) safety needs.

 

These are followed by (3 and 4) two levels of social needs: first the need for family, friends, and a sense of belonging, and then the need to achieve self-esteem in the form of recognition for one’s achievements and respect from one’s fellows.

 

Finally Maslow posits what he considers the highest human need: (5) that for self-actualization, or the ability to be creative and fully utilize the talent inherent in one’s abilities.

 

If you want to know what economies (and governments too) are really for, it is to facilitate the fulfillment of all these needs – including the highest one. That is, to help citizens “be all they can be.”

 

Part IV – Conclusion

 

Socialist economists have shown some insight into this requirement, and of course, Karl Marx clearly laid out the state of alienation that capitalism brings about by estranging the worker from the product of his or her own labor.

 

Nonetheless, there has not yet been a post-industrial national economy (including so-called socialist ones) that has prioritized or, for that matter, even recognized self-actualization as a goal of economic policy. Because such an effort has never been part of our official political and economic policy making, it is difficult for all people, including those in the U.S. celebrating Labor Day, to think of satisfying this need through the activity – the labor – that takes up most of their waking hours.

 

And here is a piece of consequential irony that this blindness to the humanizing potential of labor has left us with. According to the advertising agents working diligently to convince us all that we live in the best of possible worlds, the best place for youth to fulfill their potential is (no gagging please) in the military. Thus, the slogan “be all you can be” has been turned into a recruiting ad for the U.S. Army.

 

At this rate daily work will stay a stultifying trap for most, and dissatisfaction will continue to be taken for granted as a consequence of the need to labor. It is no wonder that here in the 21st century, one is driven back to the 18th-century Enlightenment writer Voltaire for solace – for the message that we can as yet do little better than “tending our own gardens well.”

Trump’s Defining Moments – An Analysis (25 August 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

 

Part I – Moment One

 

In the last few weeks President Trump has gone through a series of defining moments, in which his disturbing rhetorical reactions to historical developments have opened a window on his sense of the world and the nation.

 

Let’s pick up the story on Friday, August 11. On that day the New York Times (NYT) announced “Conservatives Relish the ‘Fury’ in Trumps Talk.” A blurb for the article said, “Fans of Tough Rhetoric See a Promised Kept.” The reference was to Donald Trump’s suggestion that he would respond to any North Korean aggression with a counterattack of “fire and fury.” Maybe he would even consider a preemptive strike.

 

The “fire and fury” talk seems to have been a spontaneous, uncensored display of what President Trump would do to North Korea if not precariously held in check by select others – perhaps certain Republican Party leaders and military advisers – who will now try to sublimate the president’s belligerency into a new strategy for Afghanistan.

 

As is typical of spontaneous responses, the “fire and fury” outburst was contextualized not by historical facts or thought-out policy, but rather by the uninhibited personality of the responder.

 

At this point it should be noted that it has taken centuries to mature a set of diplomatic rules and practices which even now only just manages to keep the aggressive behavior of most nation-states in check. To see the President of the United States treat that history as if it meant little is chilling. Just as chilling is the response of the president’s “base.”

 

Trump’s belligerent rhetoric exhilarated his “die hard” (pun intended) supporters, who obviously have the “bring ‘em on” attitude made famous by George W. Bush. The NYT kept referring to this group as “conservatives” who saw Trump’s aggressiveness as a “promise fulfilled.” Many of them proclaimed that they did not fear a nuclear war with North Korea because, living in places like Colorado, Arizona and Georgia, they saw themselves sufficiently isolated from danger of nuclear attack and, apparently, to hell with other Americans – particularly those cursed city dwellers. Among those exhilarated by the president’s words was “the conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh,” who proclaimed that the U.S. finally had a real man in the White House after eight years of Barak Obama, whom he referred to as a “pajama boy who wears mom jeans who can barely throw a baseball.”

 

The NYT is wrong in its “conservative” attribution. What is revealed here is not conservatism, which by definition implies a certain reserved and disciplined posture. What the NYT was really describing is the behavior of rightwing extremists, from the president on down. This fact was confirmed on the following day.

 

 

Part II – Moment Two

 

 

On Saturday, August 12, white supremacist groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia, to demonstrate against the removal of a Confederate monument, and ended up in violent clashes with counter-demonstrators. Both sides stand for easily recognizable, if somewhat stereotypical, opposing cultural programs: the white supremacists demand a white-dominated America with archaic racist values, segregation and the elimination of any ethnic programs of upper mobility or immigration policies that might cause a threat to white privilege. The counter-demonstrators stand for an America of greater diversity, equal opportunity, desegregation and an array of other progressive values.

 

President Trump was slow to react to the Charlottesville violence. Perhaps he was initially rendered speechless at witnessing a truly “deplorable” subset of his “base” suddenly showing up at a broadcasted riot in a Virginia college town. How would the real Trump respond?

 

He ended up hedging. Under great pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, Trump begrudgingly condemned klansmen and neo-Nazis as “bad people” but simultaneously insisted that (1) also demonstrating on the side of the bad guys were a lot of “very fine people” and (2) both sides must be blamed for the violence. Though he and his advisers might not have realized it, in the eyes of the greater public, Trump’s position put him, de facto, on the side of the Klan and the neo-Nazis.

 

The Ku Klux Klan and various like groups have always been extremist expressions of a broader, historically rooted, racist expression of American culture. This cultural “ideal” is juxtaposed against a more cosmopolitan, open and liberal America. Up until the time of the U.S. Civil War, racist culture predominated, with its most extreme expression being in the slaveholding south. After the Civil War, that territorial stronghold was destroyed, and despite the ultimate failure of “reconstruction” the culture of racism began a long and very slow decline. However, it has never disappeared entirely and what happened in Charlottesville tells us that this reactionary vision is capable of at least a temporary resurgence when given political encouragement. That is what President Trump’s this-is-the-real-me response has done.

 

 

Part IV – Conclusion

 

 

In the last few weeks Donald Trump has shown himself willing to almost offhandedly ignore two hundred years of the world’s diplomatic history and decades of his own nation’s progressive cultural development. This display of historical ignorance and spontaneous stupidity reminds one of Edmund Burke’s warning against men with “intemperate minds.”

 

It has also drawn ever more sharply the cultural divide now facing the United States. Do Americans really want a return to the racism signified not only by the Klan and its ilk, but also by the ongoing upsurge in police violence against African-Americans? Do Americans really want a reaffirmation of a monopolistic white culture that, through Trump’s immigration policy, would destroy the historical contribution of numerous ethnic groups in making a progressive multicultural society?

 

Most Americans, if pressed to take a side, would probably stand against the real Donald Trump revealed by these recent defining moments. However, in order for them to effectively take that stand, there needs to be a political alternative – an institutional choice that allows for the political defeat of the rightwing radicals. When we look around for that alternative, all we find is a dysfunctional Democratic Party, which, under its present leadership, has proven incapable of checking the reactionary trend besetting the nation.

 

So, the U.S. is in both political and cultural limbo. Its citizens are left asking if Donald Trump’s defining moments will also define their own future.

Education and Ideology – An Analysis (12 August 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

Part I – Ideologically Managed Education

Education is one of those words that has a positive connotation for almost everyone – usually generating a warm and fuzzy feeling that suggests a richer and brighter future. But that is just an idealization of the concept. As I have stated before, as far as the state is concerned, education has two major purposes: to fulfill the vocational needs of the economy and the political need for ideologically loyal citizens. It is in the pursuit of this last goal that education can reveal a darker side.

Here are a few stories concerning the interface between education and political ideology. I take them from the annals of Israeli/Zionist education, but one can certainly find other examples worldwide.

Story One:

David Sarna Galdi is an American Jew who attended Jewish schools in New York City, went to Jewish summer camps, attended synagogue regularly, and vacationed often in Israel with his parents. In his own words he had “a quintessential Zionist Jewish-American upbringing,” and as a result, “I never heard one word about the [Israeli] occupation [of Palestinian territory], or even the actual word, ‘occupation.’” Only after immigrating to Israel did he “become aware of the occupation and all its ramifications.”

The Israeli occupation is fifty years old and ongoing. Can Galdi’s story really be true? It certainly can be true if you grow up within a closed information environment – an environment where elements of non-local reality are simply left out of the educational process. That seems to be the case when it comes to Zionist Jewish-American education.

Story Two:

Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, which this year was on April 24, is a time for remembering the Holocaust and learning its historical lessons. Yet there are two ways of approaching those lessons – one is universal and the other particular. Most of Israel’s educational system has chosen to forgo the universal message of the need to promote human rights and stand up against oppression wherever it is practiced. Instead the particularistic message Israeli schoolchildren have always received is that the Jews are eternal victims. Indeed, “Israel and its strong army are the only things preventing another genocide by non-Jews.”

Very few Israeli educators have dared break with this official point of view. However, those few who have describe a systematic “misuse of the Holocaust [that is] pathological and intended to generate fear and hatred” as an element of “extreme nationalism.”

Again the key to such a process of indoctrination embedded within the educational system is the maintenance of a closed information environment. As one Israeli educator, who has grown uneasy with the propagandistic nature of his nation’s schooling, puts it, “increasingly they [the students] receive no alternative messages in school.”

Story Three:

Finally, let us take a comparative look at two reports on Israel’s educational system. One is a 2009 Palestinian report (PR) entitled “Palestinian History and Identity in Israeli Schools.” The other is a 2012 report (IS) produced by the Institute for Israeli Studies at the University of Maryland and is entitled, “Education in Israel: The Challenges Ahead.” What strikes the reader of these reports is how much they agree on the nature of specific problems having to do with the education of minority groups in Israel.

Here are a few of the problems both reports highlight:

(1) Both the IS and the PR reports agree that the Israeli educational system is at once a segregated and highly centralized affair controlled by the Israeli government’s Ministry of Education. As a consequence, according to the IS report, “Arab schools are significantly underfunded compared to Jewish schools,” and this is reflected in an unfavorable “differential student-teacher ratios in Arab schools” (IS report, p. 12). The PR adds the following information: “Public education for Palestinians [one quarter of all students in Israel] is administered by the Department for Arab Education, which is a special administrative entity within the Ministry of Education and under its direct control. The Department for Arab Education has no autonomous decision making authority” (PR, p. 1).

(2) As described in the IS report, because curriculum in Arab-Israeli schools is controlled by the Ministry of Education, sensitive subjects such as Palestinian history are censored (not allowed to be “openly discussed”). The PR elaborates: Israeli textbooks are highly selective in their “choice of facts and explanations, ignoring contradictory arguments, especially facts connected to Arab-Palestinian history.” Ultimately, “they erase modern Palestinian history” (PR, p. 1). Arab-Israeli students are forced, at least superficially, to absorb a Zionist interpretation of history because without being able to repeat it on their graduation exam they cannot successfully finish high school. Palestinian students do, of course, know their own version of history, which they get from numerous non-school sources.

However, the Israeli Jewish students also are deprived. They are systematically kept away from this same Palestinian narrative – one ardently believed in by over 20 percent of their nation’s population. Under these circumstances, as the IS report points out, “national cohesion” is hard to build.

The IS report recommends “strengthening within the schools the democratic and pluralistic view embodied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, focusing on building shared values and acceptance of diversity. To strengthen communal understanding and build a stronger common identity” (IS, p. 21).

Unfortunately, these recommendations are impossible to implement, and I suspect that the authors know that this is so. In the case of Israel, education has been subordinated to ideology to such an extent that it cannot promote diversity, shared values and a common identity with non-Jews. Thus, given the Zionist ethic as practiced by Israelis and their diaspora supporters, the Palestinian identity and values are anathema and represent threats. Thus, IS recommendations become the equivalent of taking poison.

Part II – Ideology Bests the Ideal

Any ideology represents a closed information environment. By definition it narrows reality down to a limited number of perspectives. Ideology also invites hubris, rationalized by nationality or religion and their accompanying peculiar take on history. It becomes the goal of an ideologically managed educational system to promote political loyalty and the hubris it seems to justify. The current terminology for this condition is “exceptionalism.”

All of this is a far cry from the way education is idealized:

According to Aristotle, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Thanks to the Zionist educational system both in Israel and the diaspora, there are many otherwise educated Jews who cannot even entertain the thought of shared values and common identity with Palestinians.

According to Malcolm X, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” However, those being educated are usually passive and someone else has prepared what they will learn, and therefore has prepared their future.

According to Martin Luther King, Jr., “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” In an ideal situation that may be true, but in practice it runs against the historical political mission of post-industrial educational systems.

Finally, one might consider this observation by Albert Einstein: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” This is a welcome insight, yet the problem is that relatively few people forget the political and cultural imperatives of their education. Those who do, including Einstein himself, are often considered by their fellows as “social mistakes.”

Now we know why it is so hard for Israelis to embrace the imperatives of peace, or for the rest of us to go beyond our present era of nation-states be they democratic or otherwise. Our self-destructive stubbornness is a function of a successful, ideologically managed education.

A Culture War Against Tolerance – An Analysis (16 July 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

 

Part I – Tolerance Amid Growing Intolerance

 

In case you haven’t noticed, the United States is a country deeply divided on a large number of basic issues: racial issues, gender issues, issues of sexual preference, the role of government in society, the role of religious views in shaping laws, and so on. Influential Institutions, such as media outlets, are being labeled as “left” or “right” depending on how they report or relate on these issues. Battles now rage on these topics in the halls of Congress. Finally, the Supreme Court’s legal decisions on cases that reflect these questions have been trending toward the “conservative” end of the spectrum. All of this makes it quite difficult to have a meaningful discussion or debate about such issues in the public realm. Such attempts have often led to further divisiveness instead of reconciliation – reflecting what some might describe as an ongoing culture war.

The one place where thoughtful debates are usually encouraged is on the university and colleges campuses. This is particularly so in the “humanities” and “social sciences” classrooms, where you find courses in history, English, foreign languages, sociology, anthropology, political science and the like. Such areas of study draw on diverse source material and examples. And so, running against the popular grain, so to speak, divisive issues often become legitimate aspects of study.

This process of study and discussion concerning controversial topics has been going on on U.S. campuses at least since the end of World War II. By the 1970s clear preferences as to how these issues should be thought about appeared. And, they consistently agreed with a tolerant stand that maximized the virtues of equality and social justice. It should come as no surprise that faculty in these areas are usually left of center on the political spectrum.

Thus, the campus consensus is that while an individual can privately feel as he or she likes about topics such as homosexuality or racial integration, and can choose their social circle accordingly, it is wrong to publicly act in an overtly discriminatory way. Until recently the courts have agreed with this position, but now things appear to be changing. Such a trend in the direction of public intolerance has begun to isolate the campus environment while at the same time denigrating the tolerant position as “political correctness” – as if being correct and thus legitimate, appropriate and proper was a failing.

 

Part II – A Republican Attack on the University

 

This process of isolating one of the staunchest bastions of active public tolerance has recently been highlighted by a new (July 2017) report of the Pew Research Center entitled Sharp Partisan Divisions In Views of National Institutions. According to the report, there has been “a dramatic attitude shift on higher education among Republicans and people who lean Republican.” It would seem that “Republicans have soured on higher education, with more than half [a reported 58% of them] now saying that colleges have a negative impact on the United States.” The more conservative the Republican respondent described him- or herself, the more likely they are to have a negative view of higher educational institutions. This compares with 72% of Democrats who saw the contribution of colleges on society as positive. Of course, Democrats now have problems getting elected.

There is a link between those who hold a negative view of institutions of higher learning and those who confine themselves to watching or listening to the country’s right-wing media. As it turns out, “Virtually every day Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative outlets run critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses, typically with coverage focused on the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education.” Now consider that Fox News is the most popular news (or shall we say, alleged news) show on U.S. television.

The success of right-wing news and other media is a good example of viewers practicing, perhaps unconsciously, confirmation bias. The criterion for the information you seek out is not accuracy or truth, but rather its ability to confirm an outlook you already hold.

Of course, one does not have to be right-wing to play this particular game but, ultimately it makes a difference if you are among the intolerant. Intolerant worldviews are closed systems. Once you have committed to them you have put on blinkers and become one of the faithful – no more debates, no more discussions, no more broadmindedness, no more tolerance. People without your blinkers start to appear as dangerous, heretical, unpatriotic. You are now bound to a “group think” that is starkly undemocratic.

 

Part III – Poisonous Sour Grapes

 

As intolerance under the leadership of Republicans and neo-Republicans (Trump, Bannon, Tea Party types, etc.) becomes more widespread, those institutions that value tolerance come under pressure. This sometimes comes from right-wing media, sometimes from special interest donors and lobbyists, and sometimes, in the case of college and universities, from pockets of students (both right and left) who have decided that some outlooks are so unacceptable that they must be silenced. Whenever reasonable this last action should be avoided. If you don’t like what campus speakers stand for or say, one’s default position should not be to shut them down, but rather to use their presence as a teaching moment: here is how not to build a healthy society. However, in the midst of a culture war, the tolerant may ultimately find themselves painted into a corner.

We can legitimately ask how far the Republican right is willing to push their campaign of intolerance against tolerant college campuses. Having lost the open campus debates on an array of divisive issues, they now react with a poisonous version of sour grapes.They declare that “colleges have a negative impact on the United States.” If they take this charge to Congress or to the courts, we may come to a point where tolerance of extreme intolerance is no longer reasonable. Given that level of threat we should all be aware of Karl Popper’s description of the paradox of tolerance: “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

This is the dilemma that is forced upon us when war – in this case a culture war – takes over the public mind. The space for tolerance shrinks and it is the barbarians among us who start to define the rules of social interaction.

Walls For The Dead – An Analysis (5 July 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

 

Part I – A Memorial Wall

 

 

Walls (here we mean monolithic structures that are not part of buildings) seem to hold a special fascination for many people. Some walls feed a tribal passion, a strong us-versus-them mentality. The apartheid wall produced by the Israeli government, as well as the wall envisioned by the Trump administration for the southern U.S. border, are of that type. However, there are other kinds of walls, such as those that memorialize the dead. For instance, in Washington, D.C., there is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. This wall (actually two walls that meet at a ninety degree angle) is roughly 494 feet long and is inscribed with the names of 58,318 servicemen and women killed or missing in that war.

 

Just by way of comparison, one might ask how long would be a similar memorial to the approximately three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed in the same war. It would have to be about 51 times larger, extending over 25,000 feet. That is about 4.7 miles long.

 

Of course, nations do not commemorate the dead of their adversaries, for to do so would call into question the value of their own citizens’ sacrifices. And sacrifice – indeed patriotic sacrifice – is certainly how most Americans would describe the deaths of those whose names appear on this wall. As one veteran who visits the site often put it, “We lost all those wonderful kids. It’s very moving to see all names at once, all the sacrifice, the enormity of it.”

 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is immensely popular – for the relatives and friends of the dead it memorializes are still well represented among the living. More than three million visitors a year (about the same number as Vietnamese dead!) visit the wall in Washington. To this we can add the fact that, for the last thirteen years, there has been a portable replica of the wall traveling about the country.

 

The fact that this replica will soon show up in a town not far from where I live has led me to consider the various ways the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, be it stationary or mobile, can be contextualized.

 

 

Part II – Patriotic Sacrifice?

 

 

The problem with the assertion that all of those 58,318 dead servicemen and women performed some sort of patriotic sacrifice is that it is it is, at least in good part, ahistorical. In other words, the claim doesn’t fit the facts very well, though it does fit the prevailing official storyline.

 

(1) The official story is that the Vietnam War was all about containing the spread of communism in southeast Asia. Communist North Vietnam supposedly wanted to conquer “democratic” South Vietnam in order to spread its Communist ideology, and if successful, this conquest would trigger a “domino” effect that would result in most of Southeast Asia becoming Communist. To save millions of people from this fate, the United States sent all “those wonderful kids” to war.

 

(2) A contrasting account, one that has much more of a factual foundation, is that North Vietnam and South Vietnam were really one country and the latter existed only as an artificial creation of French imperialism (France controlled Vietnam from the 1880s through to 1954). The main motivation of the North Vietnamese in fighting the United States was to achieve national unification. That made their leader, Ho Chi Minh, first and foremost a Vietnamese patriot. His Communist ideology was a secondary factor in the eyes of most of his fellow Vietnamese (the small Catholic minority in the south being an exception). By the way, Ho had only become a Communist after World War I because the Soviet Union was the only powerful nation willing to help him in his struggle against French colonial occupation.

 

Finally, the OSS/CIA came up with a national intelligence estimate as early as 1945 that predicted the difficulties of fighting in Vietnam, and also remarked on the popularity of Ho Chi Minh as a founding father figure in all parts of the country. This estimate was rejected by the political leadership in Washington. Why so? After World War II the worldview in Washington was dominated by a strident anti-Communist outlook that blinded American leaders to all “Third World” nationalist impulses. Whether it was in Ho’s Vietnam, Nasser’s Egypt, or Castro’s Cuba, among many others, the alleged drive of Communism for world domination was assumed to be lurking somewhere behind the scenes.

 

There are other motivations that came into play in Washington by the mid-1960s. The Democratic Party was in control of the White House, and there was fear that if Democrats did not take a stand in South Vietnam, the Republicans would relentlessly accuse them of weakness, and “losing Vietnam,” as earlier Democrats had allegedly “lost China” to communism.

 

All of this led ultimately to the purposeful exaggeration of the August 1964 naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. During this episode a U.S. destroyer fired warning shots at nearby North Vietnamese gunboats. This incident was misleadingly described by President Lyndon Johnson to Congress as an attack by the gunboats on a U.S. ship, and it led to Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing the president to deploy conventional forces in “defense” of South Vietnam.

 

We can now ask ourselves which of these two storylines supports the claim of patriotic sacrifice? Obviously it is the first one. If the Vietnam War was all about halting the spread of a totalitarian ideology and preventing the destruction of a democratic system of government held dear by the U.S., then friends and relatives of those inscribed on the Memorial wall, as well as those who survived the war, can feel a certain pride and carry on the belief that all the sacrifices were not in vain.

 

 

Part III – Victimization?

 

 

However, as suggested above, that emotionally satisfying explanation is not the historically most accurate one. The evidence more strongly suggests that those U.S. servicemen and women were sent to their deaths because ideologically and politically driven American leaders refused to see what was happening in Vietnam as a national effort at reunification – an effort which, if accurately portrayed to the American people, may have caused a widespread reluctance to go to war. National leaders were so blinded by their anti-Communism that they (not for the last time) refused to accept accurate intelligence reports that contradicted their own tragic groupthink.

 

Under these circumstances all those patriotic dead soldiers become victims – victims of a powerful ideological conviction. But it is not the ideology coming out of Hanoi that killed them. It was the ideology coming out of Washington that transformed patriotic sacrifice into victimization. And, as victims, the American dead stand on the same plane with the roughly three million Vietnamese who perished in the same conflict. They were all victims of ideology.

 

 

Part IV – Patriotic Stories

 

 

All cultures have their patriotic stories – stories about founders, heroes, how the nation is special, and so forth. The first and foremost criterion for such stories is not that they be historically accurate, but rather that they be celebratory in a patriotic and public fashion.

 

Belief in such stories is part of the glue that holds societies together, and so they are learned and reinforced in multiple ways from childhood on. Soon the sanctity of the idols and causes presented in the stories become the stuff of faith and, unless a culture is on the verge of collapse, extremely difficult to widely call into question. As part of this context, all soldiers serve in good causes, and those who die do likewise. That is why, here in the United States, people now go around saying “thank you for your service” – it is like a mantra – to soldiers and veterans, even though they have no idea what the service is or was really all about.

 

And what about the few people who somehow become “social mistakes”? That is, those who no longer believe in the emotionally reassuring stories? Well, some of us write blogs and then go fishing, others try to push their points within the political and media arenas, and many may ultimately give in to alienation and a sort of socio-political melancholy. Whichever way it goes, it is the fate of such people to always be outnumbered, not only by the patriots, but also by the dead.

Our Hidden Cultural Corrupters – An Analysis (22 June 2017) by Lawrence Davidson

 

Part I – Cultural Violence

 

 

There is a lot of violence in the United States, and if you look at the news it appears that things are getting worse. The nation is armed to the teeth, which means that any out-of-control angry person can vent in lethal fashion. Or, maybe they can choose to vent in the European style by using their car as a battering ram.

 

There is much head shaking about this nationwide violence and much wondering about its sources. The usual explanation assigns blame to the “bad apples.” That is, all these people acting out violently are somehow unstable. The fault lies with the individual, and this can be seen in their inability to contain their rage. If there is a broader influence it has to be some foreign agency (this used to be Communism but now is said to be Islam) urging them on through a subtle process of radicalization. This is thought to be one way good apples go bad.

 

But why limit blame to unstable personalities or shadowy alien forces? Our homebred culture acts as the context for a citizen’s behavior, suggesting to them what is allowable and what is not. In the U.S., with its almost nonexistent gun laws, its fundamentalist religious ideas, its rampant Islamophobia, its prevailing white-backlash politics, and its media entertainment industry heavily reliant on virtual violence, there is apparently some confusion as to what is and isn’t permissible. Under these circumstances it is quite possible that at least some manifestations of our own culture have the potential of serving as contaminating agents for otherwise upright citizens. Contamination here means turning those citizens into violent agents – little ticking time bombs.

Part II – Cultural Corruption

 

 

What aspects of U.S. culture could serve this corrupting function? Well there are those mentioned above plus the superheated patriotic environments of thousands of VFW lodges, defensive attitudes and behavior of police fraternal leagues, the motorcycle clubs where flying three-foot-long American flags from your fender is de rigueur, and last but not least the environment of your typical Trump rally.

 

However, these cultural centers of resentment and anger are only occasional producers of public violence. There are other very common culturally contaminating sources that actually supply consistent venues for bringing out the worst in many of us. These are institutions that are hardly noticed by the public and yet are turning thousands of American citizens (mostly young men) into battered, harassed, and humiliated individuals, some of whom will then turn into batterers, harassers and humiliators themselves. Some of them will make this corrupting experience the basis for lifelong friendships. Some will see these activities as integral to their “glory days.”

 

Here are two examples, and ironically, both are part of institutions that purport to be a source of the nation’s highest values – educational institutions and military institutions

 

— The Campus-Based Fraternity

 

In the region of the United States where I live, one of the largest universities is called Penn State. “Penn” stands for Pennsylvania, and it is among this state’s oldest and most respected institutions. Like many other universities and colleges, though, Penn State is a home to a large number of fraternities. Fraternities are largely self-governing male clubs or associations that are supposed to provide camaraderie for their members. Originally, they were seen as organizations that “ennobled” their members and aided in their education.

 

Today, most fraternities are boys clubs that all too often operate as if the fraternal group is bound only by its own traditions rather than societal norms. Among those traditions are regularly drinking oneself into a stupor and emotionally and sometimes physically “hazing” those “pledging” the fraternity. Pledging means going through the process prescribed for membership. At the core of this process is the systematic demeaning or embarrassing of the pledges for set period of time. The rationale behind this behavior is that “hazing” transforms the “pledge class” into a unified “band of brothers.” Overall the process weakens individuality and independent judgment.

 

Most members of fraternities range from 17 to 21 years of age. At this point I would remind the reader that the frontal cortex, that part of the brain that provides “executive function” or control for behavior, does not fully mature until one’s mid-twenties.

 

What are you likely to get when you put together an immature constituency and the sort of organizational traditions described above? Well, on 4 February 2017 at the Penn State fraternity Beta Theta Pi, you got the wrongful death of a 19-year-old pledge. Many men whose own youth have been tied to fraternities dismiss such an event as too rare to be significant. But is that so? Between the year 2000 and December 2014 there were 57 deaths due to hazing at U.S. colleges. This activity is prevalent enough, and dangerous enough, that presently 44 states have enacted some form of anti-hazing statutes. Under the circumstances, Jason Brennan, professor of ethics and public policy at Georgetown University, is right when he observes that “as a matter of fact fraternities don’t educate and ennoble; they stultify and corrupt.” How so? They allow you to see cruelty as an important and functional part of a “normal” social process. They allow you the opportunity to decide if you like being cruel or not.

 

— The Military’s “Basic Training”

 

In what other major organization do you find hazing? The answer is in the U.S. military. It is used during basic training. According to a study appearing in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics appearing March 2014, “there is a long history of sanctioned abuse of new recruits by their drill instructors during entry training.” Such behavior is particularly characteristic of the army and the marines. Officially, the military now regards this form of hazing as “cruel and unnecessary” and “inconsistent with its core institutional values.” However, this is probably more recruiting propaganda rather than a statement of real change. According to the military-associated website Task and Purpose, recruits are still subject to periodic “shark attacks,” which means being “harassed and harangued” and having instilled in them “the fear factor.” These are still the means by which “the whole discipline process” is created.

 

Traditionally, the military sees hazing as serving three purposes: (1) it weeds out those “unfit or unwilling to serve”; (2) it allegedly destroys the civilian “principles and norms” of the new recruits so that they can be replaced by those of the military organization; and (3) it allegedly builds “cohesion” among the recruits. Numbers 1 and 3 also apply to the hazing process of fraternities.

 

Part III – Hazing as a Source of Cultural Deterioration

 

 

The rationale behind hazing is to destroy pre-existing “values and habits” through a process of abuse so that they can be replaced by new “values and habits.” For fraternities the new value structure is relatively benign, going little beyond a sense of “brotherhood” and “old boy’” camaraderie that is supposed to last well beyond one’s college years. It is an elitist message but not one that risks widespread cultural deterioration. For the military the goal is not benign at all. It is no less than the destruction of the recruit’s individuality and habit of independent thinking. The desired restructured individual is one that takes orders unquestioningly and functions as part of a cadre rather than an individual. This is an undeniably anti-democratic process, the effectiveness of which contributes to the difficulty of many veterans to reintegrate back into civilian life. At the same time, “boot camp” seeks to raise the violence potential of the recruit.

 

We cannot overemphasize the fact that that in both cases the institutionalized methodology for the development of an alleged new outlook among millions of citizens is harassment and abuse. No society that allows such processes to go on in some of its most important culture-shaping institutions can hope to remain mentally healthy.

 

In today’s America, there seems to be a deep-seated restlessness. With a nearly open access to all manner of weapons and a history of racial discrimination, labor exploitation, and external aggression, what passes for cultural normality is continuously punctuated by episodes of violence. When considering this, one must face up to the fact that it is to violence that millions of citizens are being acculturated in both college fraternities and military training. These experiences must be judged as contributing factors to a process of cultural deterioration.