Beyond Media Hype: Why Write about it?

Fear whipped up by the media stimulates our emotions, shuts down our reason, and excites “fight or flight.”   That makes us selfish and violent.

We must understand what is being done to us.  Selfishness and violence are not intrinsic to our nature.   My original inflammatory “Fear and Loathing” title for these posts is because we’re on fire!

I didn’t share Hunter S. Thompson’s hatred of Nixon, who he said represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character” and I don’t hate Obama or others now.  But Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” is a great title.

We are being brainwashed to feel fear and loathing.  It’s time to be alarmed about that.

What fears?  Immigrants stealing into our “homeland” taking our jobs and living on “welfare,”  a disease from Africa sweeping through our land, Islamic terrorists slipping in from Mexico to do terrible things, fundamentalist Muslims overwhelming our Christian values, Iran nuking us, and on and on…

I began to explore these fears in Ebola and Homo Politicus.  I showed how our expectation about the performance of government agencies is based not on facts but political bias.  Now I’m exploring the implications.

In Fear and Loathing of Immigrants I surveyed history.  Immigrants are often blamed for society’s troubles, but illegal immigration only became a big issue in the 1990s.  Then, after 9/11 , we expanded our border forces enormously.  That was when fear and loathing were very deliberately cranked up.

I followed the logic of militarizing our border to its conclusion, that we should also deport every “alien” already here, and, observing that Christian Church leaders condemned the 2012 GPO budget for failing to help our “poor, hungry, homeless, jobless,” I pointed out it’s not just that we no longer want other nations’ “tired, poor, huddled masses.

We are also being brainwashed to reject all those like them, even our fellow citizens.  We’ve been told the poor are bleeding us dry ever since Reagan’s 1976 campaign anecdotes about a “welfare queen” who defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The woman Reagan spoke of appears to have been a murderer and kidnapper as well as a thief, but the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is an idle black woman.  The label plays on racial fear.

Racial fear?  Imagine how the media would have responded if Ebola appeared not in black Africa but Israel.  Where would we have been told Ebola came from and how to respond?  From Palestinian terrorists so it’s time to support an Israeli final solution?  From Iran so it’s time for our nukes to finish what we helped Saddam Hussein attempt?

In Defying Hitler about the German equivalent of 9/11, the burning of the Reichstag, Sebastian Haffner writes:  “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists.  What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter.  With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence.  If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took ‘decisive measures.’ … from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into.”

We are living through, as Yogi Berra said: “Déjà vu all over again.”  Substitute Americans for Germans, terrorists for Communists, September 11, 2001, for 1933.

We must learn from history.  We must do better.

Ignorance, Fear and Imaginary Facts

We imagine facts to support what we believe.  That’s a problem because politicians tend to focus on what we believe, not the actual data.

It’s the same in every country.  This global survey by Ipsos MORI, key findings of which are summarized here, highlights how wrong we are in 14 countries about the make-up of our population.

Emotional innumeracy is the root of the problem, a term from a research paper by Daniel Herda (UC Davis) who studied immigration innumeracy, the inability to reason about immigration.

Herda found that emotional factors create innumeracy:  “Among the emotional predictors, perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy.  It does so net of social distance and political conservatism, which have their own significant positive and negative associations, respectively.”

So, if we believe immigrants pose a threat, we overestimate the immigrant population.  Fear drives our overestimate; the overestimate increases our fear.

Immigrants

US respondents imagine that immigrants make up almost a third (32%) of our population, two and a half times the actual number, 13%.

Immigrants are perceived to be a threat in all nations surveyed, and the smaller the actual percentage of immigrants, the greater the overestimate.  The miniscule 0.4% of Poland’s population who are immigrants are overestimated at 35 times that number, Hungary’s 8 times, Japan’s 4 times and so on.  Australians with by far the highest percentage of immigrants (28%) overestimate by only a quarter.

The percentage of Muslims is also universally overestimated.

Muslims

The overestimate of our Muslim population by US respondents is 15 times the 1% small reality.  That is consistent with the overestimation in other countries with small (2% or less) Muslim populations  – Hungary 18 times, South Korea and Poland 13 times, Canada and Japan 10 times, Australia 9 times, Spain 8 times.  But even in countries with a more noticeable 4% – 8% Muslim population the overestimates are at least 3 times reality.

The percentage of Christians is correspondingly underestimated in most countries.  Four of every five (78%) Americans report themselves to be Christian while we estimate it is less than three in five (56%).  Even in Italy where 83% of the population is Christian, the estimate is only 69%.  These underestimates result from perceived threat to that heritage.

The percentage of Christians in South Korea and Japan is hugely overestimated.  These overestimates also result from perceived threat to their traditional culture.

Overestimates of immigrants and Muslims and underestimates of Christians all stem from the perception that traditional values, culture and identity are under threat.

We might question the “actual” count of Christians in the following chart because many who do not go to church consider themselves Christian, but the feeling of threat is to whatever respondents consider themselves to be.

Christians

Herda’s research result: “perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy” suggests that the overall inaccuracy of a people’s knowledge of their society’s makeup is a measure of how threatened they feel.  Ipsis Mori presents that metric as an “index of ignorance.”

Index of IgnoranceSadly, we in the US are almost the most ignorant and/or fearful of all nations.  Only in Italy is there greater ignorance and/or fear of change.

Eighty years ago in his first inaugural address, our President spoke of his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That, too, was a time to get real.  “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he went on.

But we can’t get real if we keep imagining the facts and getting confirmation of our fears from media whose interests are so different from ours.

So let’s stop deluding ourselves.  Let’s question what we imagine to be facts.

The Mental Illness of Homo Politicus

Our cranial roommate, Homo Politicus, identified by Aristotle long before the birth of Christ, is a trouble maker.

The following observation is true enough, but Homo Politicus latches onto one word and says “There you go again!”

All forms of conservatism are symptoms of mental illness.  The fact that they are collective and rooted in ancient fragments of wisdom does not change the fact, just makes them more dangerous, difficult to acknowledge as pathological, and hard to treat.

Because Homo Politicus sees everything as political and “conservative” is a political label, (s)he distracts us from what’s important, the root of the mental illness that manifests as conservatism.

What is that root?  Fear of change.

That’s important because so may of us fear change.  It’s not just Republicans, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists or others who profess conservative values.

And conservatism is not our only mental illness that manifests in politics.  Progressivism is also a delusion because we cannot in real life manage societal change.

Although our every behavior causes change, we cannot control the result.  The network of causes in which we exist encompasses everything that ever happened.  We cannot be in control because we are embedded in that network of causes.

Over-excitable Homo Politicus distracts us from the fact that knowing we cannot be certain about all its results does not mean our behavior doesn’t matter.

In fact, it is only our behavior that matters!  Because they so often guide our behavior, we must be very wary of our mental roommate’s beliefs.

It is foolish, for example, to think that those with a different political bias are mentally ill while we are sane.  That leads us to ignore important truths they point out.

And Homo Politicus blinds us to our own contradictory beliefs.  Conservatives who oppose government activism at home, for example, passionately advocate the use of force to change other nations.

There are such contradictory beliefs all across our political spectrum.

The result is we live with great social and economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, persecution based on beliefs or identity – all these ills and more – and we don’t know what to do.

We might imagine too much government got us into the mess, or stronger government could fix the problem.  But corrupt and incompetent as our government may be, it is not our primary problem.

That’s good because government’s flaws are very hard to correct but our individual problems are more tractable.  Of course we must correct our government’s flaws but we will get results faster by correcting our own.

What can we do about our insanity?  We can:

  • Reject “us-versus-them”, start building bridges across perceived divides.
  • Focus more on broader long-term consequences of our actions, less on short-term self-interest.
  • Resist appeals to fear and anger that cloud our judgment, use more analysis.
  • Assume misunderstandings result not from malice but miscommunication, practice empathy.

That we have an insane cranial roommate whose friends and enemies are also deranged doesn’t mean we must remain deluded.  We can pay less attention to their chatter and act more wisely.  We will be happier if we do.

A Good Education For All

We like the words of conservatives — they focus on what’s good.  Progressives make us angry because when advocating change, they tell us what’s bad.  Many compound the problem with their tone — they feel, deep down, that what’s wrong never will be fully righted.  Robert Reich is an exception:

“This Saturday, May 17, marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling overcoming “separate but equal” school segregation that the Court had approved in 1896.  The Brown decision helped fuel the civil rights movement, but it failed to have a lasting effect on school segregation.  America’s schools today are almost as segregated as were southern schools before Brown.  That’s because the neighborhoods where most black and Latino children now live and attend school are nearly all black and Latino.

We’re segregating geographically by income and race, more dramatically than at any time in the nation’s history.  Entire cities are now mostly poor and black or Latino, even though bordered by cities or counties that are largely middle class and white (consider Detroit and its neighbor, Oakland County, Michigan).  But as was the case in the 1950s, separate is not equal.  In order to integrate our schools we need to integrate our cities and communities.  Housing policy is critical to education.”

In fact, it’s hard to see how the problem Reich describes can be overcome under our Constitution, and the problem is broader than he describes.  His solution falls short but it is a good basis for discussion because his principal focus always is on a better future.

Our schools are indeed segregated by race but the deeper segregation in our society is by wealth.  Schools in poor and affluent white communities look similar because both sets of kids are white.  The quality of education, however, is very different.  That means so also are the outcomes.

Because almost half the funding for US public schools depends on local taxes, there are inevitable large differences in education between wealthy and impoverished communities.  The difference compounds over time because better educated children become higher income adults who choose to live where high property taxes fund good schools for their own children.

Looked at the other way, communities where student poverty is rare have well-funded schools, those where student poverty is rampant get much less funding.

Ours is the only first world nation that funds education based on local wealth.  Other nations equalize funding or provide more for students in need.  Dutch schools, for example, are funded based on the number of pupils and get almost twice as much funding per minority child and 1.25 times as much per low-income child as per middle-class child.  In the US, we do the opposite.  Schools for our lower-income and minority students typically receive less funds than those for middle-class white kids.

When our government structure was established by Constitution in the 18th century, most schools were financed by voluntary contributions.  By the end of the 19th century most schools were funded with local property taxes.  That was OK because people in most communities then had similar standards of living.  But urbanization in the 20th century created ever-growing differences between affluent suburbs and poor inner cities.  Parents in affluent communities could pay for better schools.

Does that differential funding make a difference?  US schools with high funding and few impoverished students got achievement scores comparable to those of Hong Kong, Japan, and other top-scoring countries in a 2001 study by the International Association for the Advancement of Educational Achievement.  US schools with the lowest funding and many poor students got achievement scores similar to the worst-scoring nations, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.

This severe inequality is not likely to change soon.  Most parents in affluent communities do not want to pay higher taxes to improve education in poorer communities.  They certainly do not want funding to be taken away from their local schools.  And in its 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez ruling, the US Supreme Court found that our Constitution does not require equal funding among school districts.  Today’s Court would rule the same way.  That decision foreclosed federal remedies for inequitable school funding.

Nevertheless, as pragmatist philosopher and educator John Dewey’s wrote more than a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.”

Most people believe better education leads to a better future.  An America where every child and teacher goes to a good school would be better.

I have a dream that we will overcome the obstacles to a better education for all our children.  We will get there faster by ranting less about what’s wrong with our institutions, leaders and neighbors and focusing instead on achieving what is better.

 

 

An Unskillful Conversation

Here in Maine the daffodils are up.  There must be more flowers further south where I sat in the spring sun in 1971 designing how a global network of computers would communicate.  The design was good, it worked well for many years, but it was a long job fixing bugs in the engineering.

Communication media are noisy.  We’re used to it with cell phones and in restaurants and such.  We know we won’t always hear what each other says or get their meaning.  Message-sent is not necessarily equal to message-received.  Computer communications work despite that because of error detection and correction protocols.   Human communication uses quizzical expressions, tones of voice, “I’m not sure I understand” and so on.

Difficult as it is to perfect computer communication, human communication is far harder because what we say and hear is distorted by our emotions.

Here’s a conversation I recently had that was prompted by Piketty’s book, Capital, which shows that capital grows faster than the economy in which it is invested.  The book is the subject of much debate at this time because the wealth of those who are already very wealthy is increasing rapidly while the income of everyone else is shrinking.

The implication of Piketty’s research is that owners of capital inevitably get an ever increasing portion of a capitalist economy’s wealth.  In theory, all wealth would end up owned by one individual but in the real world wealth is always redistributed, sometimes as a result of violent revolution, more often in a managed way via a progressive tax system.

A friend asked on Facebook about restoring balance with a wealth tax.  Someone I don’t know responded: “Wealth has always been concentrated in the relatively few wealthy.  But you just can’t take it and redistribute it like pirates taking a ship and dividing the booty.  Some pirates kill the others to get more than their fair share and it starts all over again.”   He went on at length about wasteful Big Government and appeared to be opposed not just to income redistribution, but to taxes in general.

I replied:  “We need some things governments alone can provide.  Governments need revenue.  That means taxes, so one set of questions is about the best tax system.  One element of a better one than we have now is an inheritance tax because those who inherit a lot of money did nothing to earn it — better to tax inheritances and use that to offset some personal income tax.”

His response was:  “One thing many don’t think about when it comes to inheritance tax is all that money was taxed when it was originally made during the deceased individual’s lifetime.  You are taxing it all again.”   He added:  “There’s something else about taxing the rich more than we do presently; they can remove themselves from taxes by moving their wealth or their corporations out of the country.”

I asked:  Why does it matter if inherited money has already been taxed?  Those who inherit the money did nothing to earn it — that’s the big point.” 

And in response to “something else” I wrote:  It’s important to think separately about taxing corporations and individuals.  Corporations are increasingly global entities that can easily relocate aspects of themselves.  They can choose which legal systems the side-effects of their operations will be regulated by, and by which their IP and etc will be protected.  Human people, however, can only be citizens of one nation.  It’s a big step for a wealthy American to give up US citizenship, the only legal way of avoiding US taxes.”

The tone of my reply took the conversation off track.  The response was:  “The real big point is this: Who are YOU to say how anyone else’s money is yours to give away?  There’s no one so generous as someone who is earnestly and self righteously advocating the gifting of someone ELSES money.”

We could have hit “reset” in a face-to-face conversation and gone on to discover what exactly we disagree about but I couldn’t see how to do it on Facebook or any such medium.  I ended up answering the question as phrased, knowing it really wasn’t an answer:  “I’m a citizen of a democracy, which means it is my responsibility to think through and say what policies I believe are best for our society.”

The apology that came for “misusing a figure of speech” gave me the sense that a face-to-face conversation might have led us both to more insight, but I let the conversation fizzle out.

I’ve written and re-written, over and over again, my lessons from this conversation.  First, I convinced myself the problem was the restricted kind of communication inherent in online media.  Eventually, I acknowledged that I was more interested in telling the other fellow what to think than having him show me flaws in what I think.

At last, I recognized the root of the problem.  I let myself feel angry when in his first comment he dismissed Piketty’s research by calling him a fashionable intellectual.  “He’s one of those whose beliefs are impervious to facts,” I said to myself.  That set the tone of my reply. I imagined it to be factual and helpful but that was not the only message I sent.

We can see our logic errors, flaws in our perceptions and what we don’t know by articulating what we think and listening carefully to our words.  That’s what I’ve been working on as I kept rewriting this post.

But it’s quicker if others tell us our errors.  They must listen carefully to be right, of course.  What I just relearned is they only do that if we communicate skilfully, which means not just being clear but also putting ourselves in their shoes.  That’s especially necessary if we imagine their shoes won’t fit.

Seeing, Feeling, Thinking and Blogging

Last November I lost my glasses in Kathmandu.  I was taking classes and couldn’t hold texts far enough away to read, so I bought drugstore reading glasses.  With them what’s close is clear but all else is blurred.  Without them only what’s distant is clear.  The new prescription glasses I got yesterday should make everything clear but the optician said: “It will take you a couple of days to learn where things are”.

Seeing:  I’d never thought about it in that way.  I hadn’t noticed the feedback loop where my brain directs my eye muscles to change focus between what’s close and more distant.  It happens fast so I imagined everything is always in focus.  I’d have realized it’s not if I’d thought about it, but there never was a reason to.  With the new glasses I must learn to tip my head up and down so my eyes see through the right part of the lens.  That requires practice.

Feeling:  Last night I finished the first book I’ve read by Ron Rash, “The Cove”.  I intend now to read everything he ever wrote.  I knew early on how the story must end, not the specific outcome but what the situation makes inevitable.  Half way through, I wanted to stop.  I was feeling what the protagonists feel, knowing I’d do the same as those I liked, and that I share the weaknesses of those who would do harm.  The story is sadder even than I anticipated, and utterly convincing.  Why choose to experience such feelings?  Because I understand a little more.

Thinking:  Yesterday, I heard on the radio about the Ku Klux Klan in Maine in the 1920s.  I thought it was all about white supremacy and only in the South.  In fact, it was strong here, too, but with a different target, Catholics.  There were violent anti-Catholic riots here in the 1850s.  A mob inflamed by a street-preacher calling himself “The Angel Gabriel” burned a Catholic church, a Catholic priest was tarred and feathered, and there was much more.  In the 1920s, the Klan arose.  They whipped up the ongoing conflict between descendants of the English and the Irish and French-Canadian Catholics who came later.  Klan members were elected by many towns, as State representatives and one even became Governor.  There were daylight hooded marches, cross-burnings and Catholic homes were burned.  It was unsafe to speak French in public.  The Klan fizzled within a decade but their Governor later was elected to the US Senate and became a close ally of Senator Joe McCarthy.  How can anyone think it’s OK to do such things?

Blogging:  A day or two ago, a friend said: ” I like your posts about tax.  It must take a lot of work.  Why are you doing it?”  I always enjoyed the challenge of understanding things and the elation when understanding dawns.  Our society is not functioning well and the tax system is one important factor so I want to know what big impacts it has and how it could be changed to help society work better.  “Articulating what I think I understand is my best way to test if I do understand.  That’s why I write,”  I told my friend.  “But it’s not helpful if I don’t tell anyone when I see something important that isn’t generally understood.  That’s why I publish what I write.”

Why I Feel Like an Extraterrestrial

Maybe it’s because I don’t watch TV.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m lying in the dentist chair.  The TV on the ceiling is tuned to CNBC.  The technician asks, “Would you like me to turn the TV off or shall I leave it on?”  I tell her it’s OK either way.  I think I don’t care and most of the time I am indifferent but every so often the moving images and voices attract my attention.  “Look,” says an intelligent looking young man, “if we eliminated the entire defense budget it still wouldn’t fix the deficit.”

The voices were being processed by my brain all the time.  Recognizing “defense budget”, something said, “heh, pay attention” and presented the entire sentence the man had spoken.  The interviewer thanked the young Congressman.  Nobody broke out howling with laughter.

We can’t know everything so maybe the Congressman didn’t know how much we spend on defense.  Maybe he didn’t know what he said was factually incorrect.  Perhaps he’s too busy to investigate what took me only a short time to learn (see this ) but can he really be a stranger to logic?

Let’s say it was true we would still have a deficit if we entirely eliminated defense spending.  Does that mean we have no choice but to continue defense spending at the same rate?  If those we elect can say such things and be treated as wise and suitable leaders, I must be an extraterrestrial.  Why isn’t anyone laughing?

The technician continues to chip away.  I try to relax, telling myself, “you’re over-reacting.  He probably knows what he said is nonsense and that many people like to hear such things.”  It doesn’t make me feel better but you can’t expect to feel all that great in a dentist chair, anyway.

The pattern recognizer alerts me again: “If we make enough laws, we can all be criminals”.  It remembers I was interested when I heard that before.  The speaker is another thoughtful looking man who also seems to be an elected representative.  He’s being asked about the President’s push for stronger gun control legislation.  He says new legislation will only make things worse.  Again, my hopes for a raucous laugh track are disappointed.

In the decade since 9/11 when 3,000 were killed, there were no additional terrorist killings on the USA mainland.  In that same ten years, 340,000 of us killed ourselves and others with firearms (40% homicides, 60% suicides).

We took action to avert more terrorist attacks.  We took too much of the wrong kind but we also took some that was both appropriate and effective.  Pretty much all of us are pleased by the results of the effective action.  Why, then, would it be impossible to take effective action to avert more firearm deaths?  Isn’t that why we elect representatives – so they will establish effective legislation?

Maybe I’ve forgotten my extraterrestrial childhood but I remember and never regretted choosing to become an American.  So what if I feel like an extraterrestrial when I watch TV or read things like this ?.  I’m committed to this society and I will keep doing everything I can to help it grow ever better.

A Semi-Wrathful Frog

Frogs are not cuddly but each could be a prince.  Today, the transformation is triggered by a princess’s kiss.  In Grimm’s version it’s when the princess disgustedly throws the frog against a wall.  In other cases the frog had only to spend a night on the princess’s pillow.

Setting fable aside, a sad fact about frogs is that one sitting in a pan of water will not notice the gradual change if the water is heated.  It will remain unaware until it dies.

A frog that touches hot water, however, will immediately jump away from the danger.  I say this because although no form of attention from a princess will transform me into a prince, I do try to notice and point out water that’s getting hotter.

A couple of days ago, someone I greatly respect asked: “Your posts seem a bit angry; do you feel that way?”  I was surprised.   “I don’t think so…  I hope not…  Hmmm, I do see what you mean.  Maybe they do sound that way.  It’s true that I very much want some things to change.”

My posts are on disparate topics but most are sparked when I notice something and feel like a frog sensing hot water.  Wanting to alert my neighbors to the danger, I probably would be semi-wrathful.

What does semi-wrathful mean?  Tibetan Buddhists use images of deities with peaceful, wrathful and semi-wrathful appearance.  Meditating on them helps practitioners see the origin of their emotional habits and misguided concepts as they work to slowly gain control of their mind.

These deities do not experience emotion as we do.  They do not feel attracted, repelled or indifferent.  They simply recognize what is good and not good behavior, speech and thoughts.

Peaceful deities help calm the crazy spinning of the mind.  Wrathful deities help destroy its passions, anger, desire and indifference.  Semi-wrathful deities help those of us who sometimes need gentle calming and sometimes more urgency to do better.

Aspiring to be a semi-wrathful frog is better than the goal many of us are given, to be lion king of the jungle.  That has three defects — lions do not live in the jungle, it is not possible to control the jungle, and above all, it’s selfish.

Selfishness makes everyone unhappy.