Sunday, June 28, 2009

Independence Day Edition!

Evolutionary psychology teaches us that it may take as many as 1,000 generations for even an exceptionally beneficial genetic mutation to permeate an entire species. It is not surprising, then, that a mere 10 generations after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, American human nature has (apparently) changed negligibly, if at all.

This point is brought home to me graphically -- even sonorously -- when I read speeches and other documents (the Federalist Papers, Supreme Court decisions, etc.) produced by some of our finest thinkers and orators. They describe not only the weaknesses of humankind's fragile intellect, far outmatched by basal emotional impulses, but also the ramifications these weaknesses create in a fragile society. Their wisdom is ageless, and we ignore it today at our own great peril.

I start, deliberately, with a fairly recent address by a not-so-famous gentleman named Felix G. Rohatyn. An investment banker by trade and a major figure in helping New York City survive its financial crisis in the 1970s, Rohatyn addressed the graduating class of Middlebury College, Vermont, in May of 1982. He identified "income and class disparities on the one hand, regional disparities on the other" as among "the most serious threat[s] to our democratic form of government." Furthermore, "The basic test of a functioning democracy is its ability to create new wealth and see to its fair distribution. When a democratic society does not meet the test of fairness, when, as in the present state, no attempt seems to be made at fairness, freedom is in jeopardy." (As this is written, the State of California is considering draconian measures to balance its budget by severely curtailing and/or eliminating many social programs for the aged and the disabled.)

Possibly channeling the California legislature of the 21st century in advance, Rohatyn claimed that "the critical issues we face today are not the levels of interest rates or what kind of package finally comes out of budget negotiations...Our fascination with numbers must not obscure the real issues, [which include] the rapid growth of a permanent underclass in America...without real hope of participating in the future of the country; ...the decline of our traditional manufacturing sectors;...illegal immigration;...and nuclear proliferation."

Although he lost the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956 to the popular World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson should be remembered for his quiet eloquence. "We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by 'patriotism' in the context of our times?...I venture to suggest that we mean a patriotism that puts country above self...The public interest must always be the paramount interest...The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely intolerance and public irresponsibility cannot be cloaked in the shining armor of rectitude and righteousness. Nor can the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different -- the freedom of man to think as he pleases. To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety."

I wish some of today's politicians and lobbyists -- and the people and corporations that employ them -- would read a few words delivered by Judge Learned Hand at the "I Am an American Day" celebration in New York City in 1944 and 1945: "What, then, is the spirit of liberty?...The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. [T]he spirit of liberty which weights the interests of other men and women alongside its own without bias...Even in our own interest we must have an eye to the interests of others; a nation which lives only to itself will in the end perish."

Finally, President Andrew Jackson: "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes." And no list such as this would be complete without Alexander Hamilton: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."

Readers are invited to submit their own favorite examples of wisdom that is well ahead of its time and/or ideas regarding how well today's society is responding to the admonitions of the ages.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Battle Hymn of the "Republic" Party

Lucky me! Although I'm a registered Democrat, I received in last Wednesday's mail a fund-raising appeal for the Republican National Committee signed by none other than Chairman Michael Steele. Now, nobody expects this type of mailer to be profound or scholarly. It has one purpose only, and that is to motivate people to write checks. So, let's analyze what issues and kinds of "reasoning" the top Republican strategists think will get their "base" to open their wallets.

The mailer came in four parts: a letter (dated "Monday Morning" -- I kid you not!), a questionnaire (the "2009 Obama Agenda Survey"), a pledge form, and a postage-paid return envelope. To give credit where credit is due, I consider three of the 15 survey questions to be phrased in a reasonably objective fashion, e.g. "Should English be the official language of the United States?" More typical, however, were items characterized by the linguistic legerdemain that has become standard in political circles.

One common trick used to turn allegedly informational surveys into political statements is to incorporate into the items certain assumptions, "facts," and terminology with subjective and emotional connotations. Here's Exhibit #1 from the "survey": "Do you agree with Barack Obama's budget plan that will lead to a $23.1 trillion deficit over the next ten years?" All of a sudden Republicans are against budget deficits, having squandered the balanced budget environment they inherited from the Clinton administration. And where did that $23.1 trillion figure come from. (It's strange, I didn't see a footnote.) And did the Bush/Cheney tax cuts increase or decrease the national deficit? Simplistic questions are not designed for people who prefer complex answers.

Item #9 reads "Do you support the creation of a national health insurance plan that would be administered by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?" Using the words "bureaucrats in Washington, D.C." is like, well, throwing peanuts to a hungry elephant. Notice that the alternative -- trusting the administration of healthcare to the profit-oriented private sector -- was not provided as an alternative.

I really love #7: "Do you believe that Barack Obama's nominees for federal courts should be immediately and unquestionably approved for their lifetime appointments by the U.S. Senate?" Presumably if someone answers "No," it will be interpreted to mean that it's OK to delay hearings and to oppose the nominees regardless of their qualifications.

I can't resist quoting #13: "Are you in favor of reinstituting the military draft, as Democrats in Congress have proposed?" Are Democrats (as a group) really advocating this? Again I searched in vain for a footnote and found nothing -- not even from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, or the Weekly Standard.

The four-page letter, though, is a real classic. Of course it trots out the old reliable "liberal media elites" and the "ultra-biased media" phrases guaranteed to boil the blood of most right-wing conservatives. It states, without any evidence whatsoever (maybe because it doesn't exist?) that "the media acts (sic) as though the outcome of the past election was a unanimous, 100% vote in favor of Barack Obama." (I guess Fox News, et. al., are really not part of the media -- at least not the media the conservatives love to hate.)

The letter accuses Obama of proposing changes that will "stifle our fragile economy" and (if you can believe this) "undermine our nation's sovereignty." I'm sorry, but that last one is over the edge in my opinion, even for a political hit piece.

Generally speaking, it appears that the Republican hot button issues are taxes, deficit spending, immigration, big government, the media, and unions -- and of course preventing health care reform if it reduces the influence (and profits) of insurance companies.

Despite the gross inaccuracies, innuendos, and misrepresentations, I think the letter is insidious for two additonal reasons. First, it refers to "Democrat legislation" and the "Democrat agenda," deliberately avoiding use of the word "Democratic." The intent is clear, despite the sophisticated but slimy strategy: to subliminally disparage the entire opposition Party and everything it stands for. Secondly, the letter never specifically refers to "President Obama"; the authors apparently believe that showing respect to the man who legitimately won the office (without benefit of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision) would rankle the people from whom they want contributions. They may be right.

I've marked the letter up good, correcting the grammar (apparently English isn't the official language at the RNC) and pointing out the logical and linguistic fallacies. Now I'm putting it into the postage-paid return envelope and sending it back to the "Republic" Party. With the money I save by not enclosing a contribution, I'll re-join the ACLU.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Meet Dr. Bob Segalman

Bob Segalman, Ph.D., is a lot like you and some of your friends. He's funny, smart, and accomplished. However, with apologies to "The Wizaard of Oz," Bob has one thing you haven't got -- cerebral palsy.

Bob was partially asphyxiated at birth by his umbilical cord. He has limited use of all four limbs and talks only slightly above an inaudible whisper. His family and mine were friends sixty years ago in Peoria, Illinois.

I still remember being in a barber shop with him when we were teenagers -- me getting my hair cut, Bob waiting patiently for his turn. Bob's voice was stronger then, although it still took a long time for him to formulate and pronounce words. He had just explained that he would soon be going to college. Incredulous and callously skeptical, the barber (they weren't "hairstylists" yet, and a haircut cost $4) then wondered aloud -- as if those gathered in his shop would have some miraculous knowledge -- what Bob would study. Unabashedly and I think somewhat proudly, Bob answered "Psychology!"

And study he did, earning a Ph.D. in sociology in 1972 from the University of Wisconsin. He was employed for years by the State of California, working for 32 years for the Departments of Developmental Services, Justice, and Rehabilitation, before retiring in 2004.

Bob is the sole driving force behind a valuable program called "Speech Communication Assistance By Telephone, Inc." It provides an operator with special equipment and special training to "translate" telephone conversations between two people, at least one of whom, like Bob, cannot speak loudly enough to be heard in the regular way. If you're looking for a lesson in persistence, you just found it! Bob personally lobbied more than 100 California State Legislators in 1996 to secure support from the Pubic Utilities Commission (PUC) for a full-scale test. The service is now provided in Sweden and Australia and has been recognized by the Federal Communications Commission as a requirement for all common carriers. Shoot, it's even available in Texas!

Speech to Speech is a non-profit organization that advocates for a continuation of this valuable resource to the PUC, which funds operational expenses. I get periodic requests from Bob to make donations and to write statements of support. The impression I get is that the PUC supports Speech to Speech somewhat reluctantly. Could it be that none of the Commissioners has CP?

Bob's autobiography, "Against the Current -- My Life with Cerebral Palsy," is now available. You can get it from Bob was kind enough to let me read a draft, and he even tolerated my comments (boy, do I love to edit!). The book is clever, funny, and poignant.

If I can muster half of Bob's focus and discipline, maybe someday I'll finish my current book project "I Pledge Allegiance: To What? The Paradox of 'Me.'" Bob will have a chance to edit a draft if he's willing!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why Does This Dog Still Hunt?

Part of the preparation for writing my new book involves studying evolutionary psychology. A review of a book by David Livingston Smith, "The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War," published in the journal "Evolutionary Psychology" (2008, 6(1):3-12), reminded me of right-wing Republicans in general and Dick Cheney in particular.

The mechanisms of evolution include both "selfish" self-preservation (required in order to pass along one's genes) and cooperation. The former can include violence, including total destruction of other human beings. Thus, modern homo sapiens can be considered "reluctant killers." According to Smith, reconciling these opposing tendencies requires an advanced capacity for self-deception and the ability to dehumanize the enemy.

A few months ago, in a weak moment, I actually watched a few minutes of Sean Hannity's show on Fox "News." In one segment a guest of Hannity's whose name I don't remember criticized President Obama (less than 100 days into his administration) for not keeping all his campaign promises. The guest's final point (I guess she thought she was saving the best for last) was that Obama had not kept his promise to help Americans replace thousands of energy-hungry old-style light bulbs with their more environmentally friendly cousins. Moving seamlessly into the next segment, Hannity introduced Karl Rove, who proceeded to criticize Obama for working on too many projects simultaneously. If Hannity noticed the contradiction, he did a good job of hiding his concern over the dichotomous nature of the juxtaposed criticisms.

More recently, according to Keith Olbermann, Fox News stated that Obama refused to use the word "democracy" in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo. Olbermann then showed actual video from the speech, in which the word "democracy" was used at least four times.

I am amused by Dick Cheney's recently-discovered love of open government. As you know, he wants documents that he claims prove the effectiveness of torture to be declassified. I wonder -- is he also now ready to reveal the identities of the members of his early-first-term energy task force?

Can supposedly intelligent people really not understand, or be concerned about, such hypocritical behavior? According to Smith, the human brain actually has the capacity to divide itself into segments that lack the ability to communicate with one another! Hypocrisy is thereby banished from existence.

The vitriolic nature of political debate, historically present to be sure but especially noticeable in the last decade, is characterized by intense dehumanization. You don't need me to name the people who engage in such behavior; if you're reading this blog, you already have your own favorites. But Dick Cheney comes to my mind (among others).

According to Smith, one of the best tactics for dehumanizing an enemy is to inspire among one's followers "hate, fear, or repugnance" in said enemy. And what kind of talk would be more inclined to do so than to charge, as Cheney has, that President Obama is making this country less safe? Cheney is doing nothing less than playing on our most personal fears -- ironically also evolved from our desire for self-preservation. Also ironically, it is our "advanced" language capability that permits such behavior.

Dick Cheney's eight years as "shadow President" have put the country at great risk. Now he doesn't even show the courtesy of letting the winners of the election implement their mandate without constantly sniping from the sidelines. I guess he can't help himself -- that's the way he "evolved." What an adventure the flies on the membranes of Dick Cheney's compartmentalized brain must have!