iPod Politics

I have often heard the analogy of iPod politics in discussions that I have had with Dan Schnur, Director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.  He likes to compare political exposure to how we receive our music and media in the modern world.  With his iPod he is able to select whatever song he wants to listen to and doesn’t need to listen to anything else.  When he was younger he had to wait for his favorite song to come on the radio and in the meantime would be exposed to other songs and other artists that he would never have listened to before, and in the process found that he actually liked some of them.

It is a potent comparison.  There are many benefits to the current iPod generation, but there are also dangers.  When we plug in our earphones we shut out the rest of the world.  We decline any other musical talent that we may otherwise be exposed to if we were to turn on the radio.  Similarly we are able to self select our media outlets with the advent of 24hr cable news outlets, multiple internet news sites, and the explosion in blog and twitter feeds.  With such self selection comes the tendency to gravitate toward those outlets that reflect our own political ideologies.  We receive validation in our opinions by journalists, writers, and news anchors.  With such validation comes a comfort and certainty in the accuracy of our opinions.  We do not expose ourselves to the vast array of opinions that exist, and more disturbingly we regard those that disagree with our opinions as misinformed, incorrect or even bigoted.  How can we expect to have a realistic view of others with different opinions if we have never spent any time listening to their perspectives?  We create, at best, a caricature of the opposition, a view that can be wildly inaccurate.

The trend has led to politicians responding to this new polarization of opinion.  Our current Congress has become one of the most dysfunctional in recent history and has created legislators that are far less inclined to compromise with opposition legislators.

It is unfortunate to see the recent trend, and would befit all of us in society to pay attention to and spend some time considering other opinions and beliefs; make friends with others we would not normally associate with, and understand their outlooks from their perspective.  Who know, we may just learn something, and find some common ground we would never have found by keeping our earplugs in.

Advertisements
Posted in Public Square | 6 Comments

America’s Third Party Want

The Tea Party has ascended in power since its overtake of the Republican Party in the 2010 midterm elections.  Recent events have demonstrated that there is no room for compromise with moderate or even moderate conservatives becoming targets of scorn by the unyielding right.  With the sharp tack to the right by the GOP, moderates have fled the party either by choice or by force.  These recent events only reinforce the need for an organized third party that embraces a middle point between the left and right debate.

The reluctance of this new wave of Republican legislators to compromise with Democrats does not bode well for the future of governance in Washington.  And the dangers posed by the partisan primary that I railed against in an earlier post reinforce this new breed of entrenched ideology.  Virtually every member of this new wave of Republican Tea Party incumbent won his or her primary battle in 2012 only reinforcing the aspiration to Tea Party ideology while serving in Congress.

We have seen such casualties in this Republican civil war as Senator Bob Bennett of Utah and Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, both falling victim to Tea Party backed candidates after they strayed across party lines to work with Democrats.  Even independent candidates such as Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are choosing to leave the legislative landscape citing an inability to govern with legislators who cannot compromise, while Republican moderate Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine decided to abandon her career as a Republican Senator citing hyper-partisanship as making it impossible to legislate.  She was replaced in the Senate by independent candidate Angus King in November’s election.

Others are choosing to leave the Republican Party of their own accord.  In California, often seen as a bellwether state in political movement, figures such as Nathan Fletcher and Anthony Adams, both Republican Assemblymen, chose to re-register as independents rather than continue within the party that had ceased to represent their interests.  

There is a growing trend of politicians who are disenfranchised from mainstream political ideologies.  Candidates like King, Fletcher, Adams and Lieberman could motivate a too often silent portion of our electorate and form a competitive third party in American politics.  This indeed is a forbidding enterprise, but with the growing unhappiness with the gridlock and hyper partisanship that exists in our nation’s politics there is undoubtedly a number of disenfranchised politicians and voters willing to board this movement.  With some leadership by the aforementioned public figures a real attempt at persuading the nation may gain some traction.

In the immortal words of Robert Kennedy “some men see things as they are and say why.  I dream of things that never were and say why not?”  Why can’t we dream of a better way to conduct our political debates?  Surely common sense dictates that more opinions are needed in our legislative offices.

Posted in Public Square | 4 Comments

It’s Not About Race, Stupid!

Continue reading

Posted in Public Square | 3 Comments

Beware: The Art of Political Persuasion!

I can almost persuade you to believe anything!

The art of persuasion is based in nuanced techniques that politicians regularly engage in to define the collective thought processes of a nation.  Whether it be the recent debates on gun control, budget cuts, gay rights, or election campaigning, there are tried and tested means that politicians regularly engage in to graduate public opinion to their respective cause.  When politicians kick into this rhetorical high gear quite often a smokescreen of emotion, apparent logic, and fashioned credibility create an almost unstoppable persuasive argument.  But these arguments can be misleading.

The art of rhetorical speech, designed to illicit support for a cause is not modern.  The art of rhetoric was practiced anciently and has become a mainstay of western political discourse.  There are lessons to be learned from the ancient practice that we pay little heed to in the modern world.  In ancient Greece the art of rhetoric was studied in schools and was an understood science.  The Sophists of ancient Greece were often seen as suspicious and their methods were portrayed as deception.  In the works of Plato for example, we read of a famous sophist by the name of Hippias.  He is portrayed as vain and arrogant. However, the attention given to modern political debate regards little for the rhetorical style of politicians.  It was common in ancient Athens to utilize ethos to establish moral character, logos to establish logical progression, and pathos to establish emotional involvement, this was an understood art.  Today’s political landscape uses similar techniques, but we seem oblivious to the charmer’s song.

Consider the case for war in Iraq in 2003.  A traditional rhetorical style was in play.  The ethos, or moral character is exhorted in a 2003 speech by President George W.Bush.  He emphasizes historical patterns suggesting a causal relationship in Iraq’s aggression and the danger to American interests.  “The regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East.  It has a deep hatred of America and our friends.  And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of Al Qaeda.”  He also attempts to build moral fortitude by citing the tacit agreement with the United States’ strategy by countries in the region.  “In recent days, some governments in the Middle East have been doing their part.  They have delivered public and private messages urging the dictator to leave Iraq, so that disarmament can proceed peacefully.”

  Consider also the following lines as evidence of logos, or logical assumption that the chosen course of action is the only appropriate one.  “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbors and against Iraq’s people.”  Furthermore President Bush argues that legal arrangements and justifications are already in place that demand further action.  “Recognizing the threat to our country, the United States Congress voted overwhelmingly last year to support the use of force against Iraq….[Also], under [United Nations] Resolutions 678 and 687 – both still in effect – the United States and our allies are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.”

The pathos, or appeal to emotional determination is evident in the following passage.  “We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over. With these capabilities, Saddam Hussein and his terrorist allies could choose the moment of deadly conflict when they are strongest.”

With such strong rhetorical arguments in 2003 the US population by a margin of 3 to 1 supported the war in Iraq.  With the benefit of hindsight, and difficult battleground scenarios facing troops, that support fell to less than 1 in 3 five years later.  This begs the question if the decision was the correct one in the first place.

With difficult debates continuing to engulf our political landscape it would be wise for the average voter to be aware of the rhetorical tools that politicians will use to try and gain favor for their pet causes.  In such arguments complexity and humanity are often ignored and we are invariably left unnecessarily disappointed with the political outcomes.  This does not need to be the case.  Honest debate needs to take into consideration all of the complexities of the delicate issues of the modern world and not attempt to boil everything down into sound bites and emotional foolery. 

As these debates continue within our political spectrum, be aware.  If I put my mind to it, I can almost persuade you to believe anything.

Posted in Public Square | 3 Comments

A Matter of Choice

Why accept it?  This is not progress!

The current makeup of the 113th Congress is the most diverse our nation has ever seen.  But with a record 8% African American, less than 6% Latino and less than 19% women how can we call this progress?  Well, quite simply put, this is not what progress resembles and we need to do better.

In an article I posted 3 weeks ago I argued that proportional representation is a way to achieve greater diversity in government.  It is a proven method that has yielded significant results in countries that utilize the format.  Sweden has a parliament that is 46% female and Scotland has no fewer than 6 parties represented in their parliament.  It’s a scenario repeated across several countries operating proportional systems.

It’s often argued that it cannot work in the United States.  In order for change to be effected we are at the mercy of legislators who undoubtedly see the folly in remedying a system that controls power in their own hands.  Well, there is an option.

The initiative system in several states, California included, allows voters to circumvent legislators to alter the political landscape.  It was recently achieved in California in June, 2010.  Proposition 14 sidestepped a hostile legislature to disband party political primaries for all statewide offices in California.  In its place the top two primary was enacted which allowed all candidates regardless of political affiliation to appear on a single primary ballot open to all voters, the top two of which would face each other in the general election.  The measure was opposed by the Democratic and Republican parties, but favored by voters.

Similarly an initiative can create multi-member districts in California to elect legislators at large for each Congressional, Assembly, or local district.  Multi-member districts have more than one seat allocated in the legislature per district.  The seats are allocated based upon the percentage of votes each party or candidate receives in the election.  If the Democratic Party received 27% of the vote, they will be allocated seats accordingly, and so forth until all the seats for a district have been allocated.  The system allows for more voices to be viable options in the electoral process instead of concentrating attention onto two dominant parties.

The result is a structure that allows for voter choice.  No longer will voters be beholden to two seemingly opposite candidates simultaneously attempting to appeal to their own bases while attempting to appear palatable to the last minute swing voter.  The proportional system creates real choice in a market where differences in opinion matter. 

Every opinion matters.  It is not enough to simply select from the lesser of two evils and try to live with the choice you have made.  It’s a choice a frustrated Goldilocks would find infuriating – a party that is too hot, one that is too cold, but none that are just right.  We pride ourselves in this nation on the choices we have available to us.  We have 31 flavors of ice-cream, thousands of television stations, probably as many fast food options, and countless alternatives in clothing and style choices.  What if in all of these circumstances we found ourselves limited to two options?  Chocolate or vanilla; ABC or CBS; Taco Bell or Subway; Macy’s or Marshalls.  It’s a very bleak and uninviting image.  But it’s one that faces us every election day.

We can do better.  There are other options.  We just need to allow ourselves the opportunity to take them.  Is choice a bad thing?  We seem to express dismay and dissatisfaction with the parties that represent us currently.  Why not level the playing field for other players to enter the race?

California is the place where we can make this happen.  As of 2012 there are a record 4 million registered voters in California that do not identify themselves as either Democrat or Republican.  That’s almost 1 in 5 of all voters in the state.  If there was a time and place where an expanded voter choice would be welcome it is now, in California.

By creating multi-member districts in California we can allow a greater diversity of choice in the candidates we select for public office.  We can increase the numbers of minority and women candidates that have a viable chance of success at the polls, and by electing officials that more generally reflect the opinions of the people of California we can ensure a diversity in government that we have never achieved in this country.

Posted in Election Reform, Public Square | 1 Comment

A House Divided Cannot Stand

ImageHeadlines were made this week by Kentucky Senator, Rand Paul with his 13 hour filibuster demanding assurances from the White House that drones could not be used to kill suspected being terrorists within the United States who are US citizens.  Senator Rand received his answer.  In effect, no they cannot.

Amid Senator Paul’s success also came criticism leveled toward him by fellow Republicans.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were both critics of Paul’s tactics and supportive of the Administration’s drone policy.  Marco Rubio, John Cornyn and John Thune however were on hand to support Rand in his effort.  McCain said Paul’s 13 hour filibuster was a “disservice.”  He also stated that Paul’s concerns were “totally unfounded.”  This in turn prompted criticism from Rubio, Cornyn, Thune and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who called McCain’s comments “sad.”  In an interview this week Newt Gingrich further explained,

What I find sad about Sen. McCain’s recent comments … with Rand Paul, is, you know, when I first knew John McCain in the House — he was a maverick. In the Senate, for years, he was a maverick… Of everybody I know in the Senate, I didn’t know anybody who had a better record of bucking the leadership, doing what he thought mattered, marching to his own drummer. And I think that it’s unfortunate. But I think frankly it doesn’t hurt Rand Paul — it hurts John McCain. The country is moving on, we’re in a new era, people know that these are legitimate questions.

A rift has developed over the last several years within the Republican Party.  The Tea Party saw a groundswell of support in the 2010 midterm elections, yet they have been kept at arm’s length by many within the party suspicious of their extreme opinions.  And with the recent loss of the White House in last November’s Presidential election the party has been accused of losing direction.  It has no real leadership to speak of and in the absence of a coherent message or that tangible leadership, rifts between the opposing forces within the party will only serve to split it further apart.

This divide has been particularly prominent in recent months.  Divisions in Republican ranks have been noticeable in the gun control debate, immigration reform efforts, and in deficit reduction discussions. 

As the GOP fast approach another presidential primary season and 2016 contenders begin their ascent, it is imperative that a decisive direction is agreed upon.  It seems safe to assume that the continual clashes in ideology are set to continue throughout the coming primary season as tea party favorites such as Paul and Rubio jostle for position against centrist Republican figures such as Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Jeb Bush of Florida who have each run afoul of the tea party’s agenda.  A looming civil war within the party will certainly sink the GOP in the 2014 midterms and 2016 election cycles.

Posted in Public Square | 2 Comments

The Sky is Falling

Recent days have seen an escalation in the doomsday scenarios predicted by the White House if $85 billion in cuts to the federal budget were allowed to go ahead.  Like Chicken Little portending the end of the world the administration, as late as Wednesday afternoon, was issuing statements that would be troubling to the average American.

the White House’s Office of Management and Budget issued a press release earlier this month claiming that the cuts in federal spending “could” force reductions in food inspections, which “could” lead to outbreaks of more food-borne bacteria, such as E. coli. Administration officials and their allies are making similarly alarming claims regarding what “could” happen to workplace safety, law enforcement, and education.

The rhetoric has been soaring in recent days.  Promises of flight delays due to reduced security staff, teacher layoffs, and borders being unmanned have been mentioned in an effort to make these cuts unreservedly unpalatable.

However, the cuts have gone ahead, and now that they have, surely the sky should cave in.  On Friday, as the cuts had become a certainty and a deal to avert them was no longer a possibility, President Obama addressed the American people and said that he “[did not] anticipate a huge financial crisis…It’s not going to be an apocalypse.”

The question now remains:  How hard will these sequester cuts affect the average American?  If indeed the sky does not fall in, and we can find a way to live with these cuts, perhaps Chicken Little will not be believed should he come calling again.

Posted in Public Square | 2 Comments

A Way to Achieve Greater Diversity in Government

Democratic countries vary in their application of electoral systems.  Some countries utilize a system of proportional representation where a political party is allocated votes based on the percentage of votes it receives in the election.  Some opt for a plurality system where only the party receiving the most votes in a district wins representation in the legislature.  The United States uses such a plurality system, also known as first past the post, whereby a candidate simply needs to win more votes than his nearest competitor to win the seat.  It is within this system that two main parties dominate the legislative landscape with Democrats and Republicans claiming 98 of the 100 Senate seats in the United States Senate, and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives.  Other parties do exist within American politics but we rarely, if ever, see them representing a constituency in Congress.  Why is this the case?  It is within the political interests of the established Democratic and Republican party apparatus to suppress the involvement of third party interests, and in recent years they have participated in explicit action to do just that:  prevent access to the ballot of third party candidates.  It is my opinion that measures must be made not only to address the need for greater ballot access by third party candidates, but also the need to move to a more democratic form of electing legislators; proportional representation.

What have we gained by having a system of first past the post, plurality winners?  Democrats and Republicans embroiled in gridlock, a word that has come to lose almost all import due to its overuse in describing our Congress.  Federal bills invariably follow a party-line vote, cabinet nominations issued by the President face filibuster at every turn, and the Senate has failed to pass a budget in 4 years.  With such division among two parties, doesn’t it make sense that at least one congressional district in the United States would opt for change and return a legislator not of the ideological divide described above?  It’s easier said than done. 

Consider the case of Carl Romanelli who in 2006 decided to run as a Green Party candidate in Pennsylvania for the contested US Senate seat against Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic rival Bob Casey Jr.  In order to gain access to the ballot under Pennsylvania law Romanelli required 67,070 petition signatures.  He submitted almost 95,000.  The Democrats accused the Santorum campaign of contributing to the name gathering effort because they believed the Republicans feared a Democratic challenger and sought to dilute their support across two candidates.  Romanelli denied the Republicans involvement and stated,

What’s appalling is that despite the [ballot access] barriers the state put up, we were able to meet them.  We accomplished something no-one has ever done in this Commonwealth before.  I’m so sick and tired of everyone trying to give Rick Santorum and the Republicans credit for that.

            In an attempt to pre-empt any effort by their detractors to discredit their petition Romanelli’s campaign workers scrutinized the 99,802 signatures they had gathered and removed 5,000 that appeared to them to be invalid.  After the department of state verified the signatures and approved ballot access for Romanelli they allowed opponents one week to file any challenges.  The Democratic Party condemned the petition as “wrought with fraud and forgeries” and submitted to the department of state that they had found 51 additional names that appeared to be fraudulent.  The Democratic Party tied the issue up for months in legal disputes and ultimately won their battle and denied Romanelli access to the ballot, landing him with $80,000 in legal fees to boot.

            Consider also the case of John Dashler who, also in 2006, decided to run for Governor of Georgia.  He was required to gather 40,000 signatures, plus a buffer of 20,000 just to be safe.  However, he faced an ostentatious list of laws created by members in the Georgia legislature to stifle political competition.  If a voter is registered as Andrew P Stames and he signs the petition as Andrew Stames then that name is invalidated.  If a voter is registered as living at 121 Main Street, Apt C but lists only 121 Main Street with no apartment number, then that name is also invalidated.  If a voter omits their date of birth (good luck signing up the ladies) then that name is also invalidated.  If a voter signs the petition and they do not live in the county specified for that petition then the entire petition including all 15 names on it become invalid.  Needless to say Dashler found this system extremely unfair and unequal to the privilege that Republicans and Democrats enjoyed.  70 third party or independent candidates in Georgia attempted to gain access to the ballot in 2006 with only 1 actually making it on to the ballot.  Dashler also reported that supporters of his were visited by lawyers for the Republican Party who ordered a barbershop owner and pastor to remove Dashler’s promotional material from his shop or lose his tax exempt status for his church.

            What is required here is a simpler system of ballot access that applauds the tenacity and civic spirit that prompts ordinary citizens to want to participate in the political process.  Instead, too often they are faced with intimidations, threats and impossible odds against an entrenched political oligarchy that would sooner exert their tremendous political and monetary wealth to quench a potential rival than they would create a system of ease for divergent ideas and political competition to rise up.

Research into the phenomenon of ballot access has yielded interesting findings.  A 2006 study noted that congressional legislators are more inclined to vote along party lines than with the wishes of their constituents when barriers to competition are raised.  (Glen and Choi, 2006).  Furthermore another study concluded that political competition feeds economic prosperity by creating legislators that are able to compromise and are more effective at fostering economic growth. (Besley, et al, 2005)  The occurrence of reduced electoral competition that Democratic and Republican candidates face is further solidified in research carried out in 2009 that finds high correlation between restrictive ballot access requirements as used in most US states and the reduced level of electoral competition.  (Drometer & Rincke, 2009)  With these studies in mind a clearer picture emerges of an entrenched elite that has no reason nor incentive to change the system, but have created a gridlocked and ineffective system of government.

            The first past the post, single member plurality voting system can be arguably an outdated 18th Century construct of democracy.  Today, only the United Kingdom and Canada join with the United States in utilizing this method.  Most other Western democracies now use a proportional system of representation.  Officials in these countries are elected in multi-member districts with each party receiving a percentage of the elected seats based on the percentage of the votes won. 

            Research tends to show that countries utilizing the plurality method register higher rates of voter dissatisfaction with their elected officials than with those countries using proportional systems.  In New Zealand a referendum was held in 1993 asking the people to select between a plurality system and a proportional one in the face of ongoing election debacles in which the second placed party at the polls actually won a majority of seats.  Citizens chose the proportional system.  In the UK in 1997 the then opposition Labor Party promised voters in Scotland a referendum on a proportional system of regional government if they were elected.  The ruling Conservative Party opposed the plan.  On Election Day the Labor Party were handed a decisive victory at the polls and the Conservative Party were wiped out in Scotland returning no legislators to the next Parliament, and the proportional system of selecting regional representatives was enacted.

            A laundry list of problems can be traced to the plurality voting system over proportional systems.  Blame for many of these issues tends to be misplaced due to the lack of discussion that exists in the United States around voting systems.  Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker magazine made this very point,

A lot of the political pathologies we worry about in this country–things like low voter turnout, popular alienation from politics, hatred of politicians and politics per se, the undue influence of special interests, the prevalence of negative campaigning and so on–are not caused by the usual suspects. They are not caused by the low moral character of our politicians. They are not caused by the selfishness of the electorate. They are not caused by the peculiarities of the American national character and the American political culture. They are not caused by television. They are not caused by money (although money certainly makes them worse). Instead, they are artifacts of a particular political technology. They are caused by our single-member district, geographically-based, plurality winner-take-all system of representation.

Some of the problems that we see in our political landscape can be traced to the practice in the United States of single member plurality districts.  For example, lack of competitive elections:  We consistently see upwards of 90 percent of incumbents being re-elected to Congress in the face of overwhelmingly negative opinion polls.  Many areas of the country are dominated by one party and can stymie political competition.  In elections in 2000, Democrats and Republicans failed to nominate candidates in 41% of state contests where one or the other was so dominant that a competitor was never fielded.

The lesser of two evils regret is often uttered around polling places, a phrase I like to restate as the evil of two lessers.  Do candidates really achieve enthusiastic support for their message, or can we conclude that, at least in part, some of that support will be tepid at best?  And when candidates are falling over themselves to appeal to the last few swing voters on the eve of an election, voters can be forgiven for concluding that there is in fact no real difference between their candidates.  And can we really boil every political opinion in the country down to a choice between red or blue?  It is wholly insufficient to offer two choices that can vary very little on substantive issues.

Lower voter turnout is often blamed on slothful voters.  Often as many as 90 million voters sit out elections each year with often less than 40% of the electorate participating in congressional elections; this in comparison to upwards of 80-90% in other Western democracies utilizing proportional systems.

Women and minority candidates also suffer as a result of lack of competition.  A record 18% of our current Congress is now female compared to 45% currently in the proportionally elected Parliament in Sweden.  The case is as bleak for minority candidates in Congress.  A record 6% of the current legislature will be Hispanic and a record 8% African American.

And let’s not forget the piece de resistance of the entrenched political oligarchy; the gerrymandered district.  This tactic allows legislatures to craft districts that don’t necessarily reflect the will of the electorate but rather the will of the party in power.  For example, in the 1990s Democrats were able to redistrict the state of Texas to give them 70% of the House seats while achieving less than 50% of the vote.

Is there any hope?  While we need to rely on deeply entrenched state legislatures that are as gridlocked with Democratic and Republican lawmakers as Washington DC is, then the outlook is grim.  Single member, plurality voting systems will never be replaced so long as they serve the powers that create the laws that will change them.  Nor will ballot access become any easier while the interests of the politically entrenched will be jeopardized if they are changed.  What are we to do?

The power of the proposition is a silver lining in this otherwise forbidding backdrop.  Several states allow their citizens to propose initiatives to be voted upon by the electorate that if pass become law.  The system can completely circumvent legislatures and even pass laws that are openly opposed by elected officials.  Such was the case in 2010 when Proposition 14 passed in California creating the Top 2 Primary system in California and completely bypassed the will of both the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party who both actively campaigned against the measure.

If we are to recognize that many of the complaints against politics in the United States are a result of the single member district and the difficulty of ballot access for third party and independent candidates, then we can make real and effective change to gridlocked and ineffective government.

Posted in Election Reform, Public Square | 1 Comment

Pragmatic Answers in the Gun Control Debate

Image

Gun violence has brought new catastrophe and controversy to our public forums in recent months.  Catastrophe at Sandy Hook Elementary was un-welcomed; the controversy over how to curb gun violence should be welcomed.  A new opportunity to openly discuss and create solutions to this difficult situation has been presented to us.  Debate rages on the merits of gun control legislation.  From right to left on our political spectrum the debates often seem loud, and at times, tedious.  What is needed in the discussion is a focus away from legislation and one directed toward pragmatic answers based in the community, and in the home.

This week in Chicago, President Obama took the opportunity to step out of the divisive political to and fro surrounding the gun control debate to provide a much needed emphasis on community and family involvement to curb gun violence.

Here, President Obama provides sagely wisdom on the need for families to engage the young people of their communities to provide role models to aspire to be like.

For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect.  And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building.

President Obama has made an effort to engage the public in a larger debate than merely gun control legislation.  While ultimately a key part of the overall strategy to curb all kinds of violence, gun control legislation must not completely consume the public appetite for discussion around curbing violence.  President Obama further clarifies his position,

When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.

This is a debate worth having.  Parents, clergy and community leaders must be the first line of defense in the war on violence.  Government, whether it be local, state or federal can play a supporting role and provide the much needed gun reform legislation that we need, but it cannot substitute for the first line of defense in this war.

Posted in Gun Control, Public Square | 3 Comments

Intellectual Divide: Reason v Passion

In an age of polarizing ideas and drive-thru catchphrase-solution politics, it is difficult oftentime to engage in a meaningful philosophical debate. What is it to engage fully in meaningful debate? There are often very visible but trite attacks aimed toward one side or another in political debate, as though the meme of the day or a quirky bumper sticker are wholly sufficient to change the course of human discussion. It is entirely a rare commodity to find an evocative debate, not just with those with opposing views to our own, but also with oneself; with your own tightly held beliefs of the way the world should operate. It seems counter intuitive to our own knowledge and understanding that we would question ourselves and our opinions in the search of further knowledge and understanding, especially when that journey may threaten our already cherished belief system.

The domain of the public intellectual is an arena where we would understand such exercise to take place. In a recent blog post writer Stephen Mack explores the possibility of the decline of the public intellectual. He denies such an occurence is happening and in his article argues,

The fiction of America’s anti-intellectualism has been debated adnauseam since Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase a half-century ago. Without replaying the whole debate, two points will suffice: One, the fact that academic institutions wield enormous financial, technological, and cultural power—and the fact that, more generally, education continues to be the centerpiece of some of our most cherished social myths (i.e., “the “American Dream”)—are both powerful reasons to doubt that Americans suffer from some instinctive hostility to intellectuals. Two, what is sometimes identified as anti-intellectualism is in fact intellectual—that is, a well articulated family of ideas and arguments that privilege the practical, active side of life (e.g., work) over the passive and purely reflective operations of the mind in a vacuum. Hence, for example, when John Dewey built his career as a philosopher on a thoughtful, systematic, elegant, and sustained repudiation of the Cartesian notion of mind and, instead, argued for “experience” as the foundation of human endeavor—he was hardly exposing himself as an anti-intellectual bigot. ‘Nuff said.

The point is a valid criticism.  Intellectualism has many forms, and with experience comes reason.  In order to sustain my argument I will enlist, who I will argue, is an example of modern public intellect, Charles Taylor…no not that one!  The Canadian philosopher known for his opposition to conventional naturalism and his exploration of behavioral attitudes in humanity wrote a series of papers beginning in 1985 entitled Human Agency & Language – Philosophical Papers.  In the first paper he argues that man is best understood as both existing as an agent as well as a person.  The distinguishing narrative he creates separating the two can best be understood as seeing the agent as a creature able to strategize to achieve its goals and a person as furthering that ability and having a sense of himself and having the ability to choose his values.  He affirms that man and animal can each be regarded as agents.  In his article, speaking of agents, he states,

To say things matter to agents is to say that we can attribute purposes, desires, aversions to them in a strong, original sense.  There is, of course, a sense in which we can attribute purposes to a machine, and thus apply action terms to it.  We say of a computing machine that it is, for example, calculating the payroll.  But that is because it plays this purpose in our lives.  It was designed by us, and is being used by us to do this.  Outside of the designer’s or user’s context, the attribution could not be made.  What identifies the action is what I want to call here a derivative purpose.  The purpose is, in other words, user-relative.  If tomorrow someone else makes it run through exactly the same programme, but with the goal of calculating pi to the nth place, then that will be what the machine is ‘doing’.

By contrast, animals and human beings are subjects of original purpose.  That the cat is stalking the bird is not a derivative, or observer-relative fact about it.  Nor is it a derivative fact about me that I am trying to explain two doctrines of the person.

The distinction that he builds onto man to separate him from the animal world is that he is also able to reason and to choose values, that he can ultimately answer to someone else and explain his situation.  He is seen as a respondent and can think critically; he can create subjects of significance; he can attribute meaning to his emotions, and attribute emotions to his meaning.

He explains,

What is striking about persons, therefore, is their ability to conceive different possibilities, to calculate how to get them, to choose between them, and thus to plan their lives.  The striking superiority of man is in strategic power.  The various capacities definitive of a person are understood in a terms of this power to plan.  Central to this is the power to represent things clearly.  We can plan well when we can lay out the possibilities clearly, when we can calculate their value to us in terms of our goals, as well as the probabilities and cost of their attainment.  Our choices can then be clear and conscious.

On this view, what is essential to the peculiarly human powers of evaluating and choosing is the clarity and complexity of the computation.  Evaluation is assessment in the light of our goals, which are seen ultimately as given, or perhaps as given for one part, and for the rest as arbitrarily chosen.  But in either case the evaluation process takes the goal as fixed.  ‘Reason is and ought to be, the slave of passions.’  Choice is properly choice in the light of clear evaluation.  To the human capacities thus conceived, the power of clear and distinct representation is obviously central.

And here is the point:  ‘Reason is and ought to be, the slave of passions.’  There is much by way of criticism toward narrowly defined intellectual endeavor, but Taylor’s assessment that reason is a marker of higher intellectual ability should be used as a modern standard of public intellect.

However, criticism should be due when appropriate.  Modern political discourse taking place in the public realm is often colored with an emphasis on passion and not reason.  Emotionally charged and polarized discussion often obscures pragmatic discussion with emphasis on supplanting reason for passion.  Whether it be the birther movement or the discussion of Mitt Romney’s tyrannical corporate raiding history, the limited scope of public attention afforded to political discussion is often saturated with passionately fused intellectually flatlined partisan smokescreens.  Certainly real and meaningful intellectual public discourse often falls far short of the standard needed for effective change to occur, but that is not to say that public intellectuals such as Taylor do not make effective and important contributions to the field of philosophical discussion.

To return to Stephen Mack’s discussion of the decline in public intellectualism in another post he discusses the cleric as a public intellectual.  Here he rails against the premise that to be a public intellectual one must leave religious belief at the door.  Here he argues,

But Reason has its own set of problems: First, there is America’s own liberal history. In many ways, American political history is the history of activist theologians from the right and the left. These men and women have been intellectuals of a special kind—people whose religious training and experience shaped their vision of a just society and required them to work for it. They have been key players in some of our most important reform movements, from abolitionism, the labor movement, and civil rights to the peace movements of various generations. And second, there is a kind of absurdity to Beinart’s reason. As Hugh Heclo puts it, the insistence that people of faith sanitize their political rhetoric of any religious assumptions “amounts to a demand that religious believers be other than themselves and act publicly as if their faith is of no real consequence.” It’s not only absurd but unfair, some argue, to ask religious intellectuals to disarm their political speech of its fundamental moral rationale.

In an interview with Charles Taylor in 2008 he also rails against those that would attack religious inclusion in modern philosophical debate.  Against these critics he says,

I happen to have quite a negative view of these folks. I think their work is very intellectually shoddy. I mean there are two things that perhaps I am just totally allergic to. The first is that they all believe that there really are some knock-down arguments against belief in God. And of course this is something you can only believe if you have a scientistic, reductionist conception and explanation of everything in the world, including human beings. If you do have such a view that everything is to be explained in terms of physics and the movement of atoms and the like, then certain forms of access to God are just closed. For example, there are certain human experiences that might direct us to God, but these would all be totally illusory if everything could be explained in scientific terms. I spend a lot of time reflecting and writing on the various human sciences and how they can be tempted into a kind of reductionism, and not only would I say that the jury is out on that, but I would argue that the likelihood of that turning out to be the proper understanding of human beings is very small. And the problem is that they just assume this reductionistic view.

The second thing I am allergic to is that they keep going on and on about the relationship between religion and violence, which on one level is fine because there is a lot of religiously-caused violence. But what they consistently fail to acknowledge is that the twentieth century was full of various atheists who were rampaging around killing millions of people. So it is simply absurd that at the end of the twentieth century someone would continue to advance the thesis that religion is the main cause of violence. I mean you’d think these people were writing in 1750, and that would be quite understandable if you were Voltaire or Locke, but to say this in 2008, well it just takes my breath away.

But then what we need to do, and this is something many religious people fail to do, is to consider why this phenomena of the new atheism is happening at this time. Atheists are reacting in the same way that religious fundamentalists reacted in the past. They are people who have been very comfortable with a sense that their particular position is what makes sense of everything and so on, and then when they are confronted by something else they just go bananas and throw up the most incredibly bad arguments in a tone of indignation and anger. And that’s the problem with that whole master narrative of secularization, what’s called the secularization thesis, that people got lulled into–you know, that religion is a thing of the past, that it’s disappearing, that it did all these terrible things but it’s going to go away and so on–because when it comes back people are just undone.

It’s an interesting perspective.  It’s nigh on impossible to bring one’s own philosophical and political opinions to intense and intellectual debate without also bringing one’s own religious exposure to the mix, whether that exposure be explicit organized religion or the espousal of atheist belief.  Our western culture is built upon social embryonic genes of Judeo-Christian values that forbid such absolutes as murder and theft.  These values are not open for debate.  They are now socially accepted norms, but they are exactly that; socially accepted, and socially constructed.  In the current debates surrounding our contemporary issues the intelligent direction of discourse is to follow the admonition of such public intellectuals as Taylor and usurp passion for reason and while doing so recognize the place that religious intellectuals bring to these issues.  Does Taylor see religious fundamentalists as well as militant atheists as driving forces of misunderstanding and polarization that drive wedges between opposing attitudes?  In one word, “Absolutely!”

Posted in Public Square | Tagged | Leave a comment