Newtown, Connecticut, Obama and Kenneth Burke

Newtown, Connecticut December 14, 2012.

Not a parent in America got through that day with dry eyes.

Our poets and artists will find ways to express the grief and outrage, but most of us will grasp at some sort of political solution. This is natural. Tragedies are often political opportunities. And they tend to follow a certain pattern.

It is already unfolding before our eyes. President Obama has mobilized a crack political team to find a legal solution, though its more important purpose is to reassure the people that our best men are on the job and everything isn’t spinning out of control. They will likely come out shortly with a proposal to ban assault rifles, or regulate the number of bullets a person can buy or some such thing.

The people themselves begin to mobilize for or against some solution, throwing out catch-phrases like “Guns do Kill People!” or “Does the Next Bullet Have Your Child’s Name On It?” There will be significant opposition.

There will be marches, people with signs, opinion pieces, calls to “Bring God back into schools,” vilification of those with opposing viewpoints, and many will lament the loss of our society’s moral center. Debates will rage via Facebook memes and tweets.

Finally, our most eloquent will rise above the chaos to offer us inspiration, but no real solutions that don’t require some work on our part.

Or, perhaps as this is the fourth such incident in as many years, we’ll write it off as a normal part of our society and go about our lives as usual, blaming the whole thing on some lunatic whose insanity got the better of him.

Kenneth Burke, literary critic and philosopher, conceived an extensive philosophy using the world of drama as a metaphor, complete with stages, curtains, actors, and narrative.

 One of his metaphors that applies now is what he calls “terministic screens.” It begs the question: “How will social discussions be framed?”

A tragic screen finds a scapegoat—in our case the man with the gun—lays all the blame on him, achieves social redemption and moves on.

A comedic screen asks things like: How am I to blame? What’s going on in the culture, the larger social structure, that encourages this horrific behavior? Where are we failing? Where am I failing?

President Obama gave a moving speech. He’s quite good with words.

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.” 

Obama, in a show of wisdom, is encouraging us to adopt a comedic screen. And he’s being honest—not something I thought I’d ever write about a politician! (Though, if he had said 'I have to change,' it would have been so much more powerful.) Can the rest of us cast off our age-old habits, do something uncharacteristic of ourselves, and be honest too?

We find ourselves at a point in history in the West where forward progress is only possible if we start assuming personal responsibility for the actions of our entire society. This is understandably difficult, may seem impossible. But anything that has yet to exist seems incapable of ever existing.

“It was one man with a gun,” we rationalize. “It happened in a far-off state, I’ve never even been to Connecticut,” we continue. “I don’t even have kids,” say the younger generations.

Not good enough. Ask yourself why you bought a ticket to that gory movie, or gave your kid a shooting video game for Christmas, or voted for that politician over and over again even though nothing seemed to get fixed. Those are easy ones, but any real social change must happen with individuals. We’re going to have to get tough on ourselves.

 I’ll start.
  • I find myself, at times, proud to be in a nation with the largest and most powerful military in history. 
  • Every election, I outwardly eschew the political rhetoric and proclaim that all politicians are the same, while inwardly I dread the possibility of a Republican president and vote accordingly. 
  • For a time in my life, I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. 
  • When my daughter came back from school, complaining about a boy that bullies her, I told her to hit him back. I’m particularly ashamed of that one. In fact, I’ll stop there for now. 
How about you?

The Economic Role of Government continued

“It’s the economy stupid.” –James Carville

The words of former U.S. President Clinton’s campaign strategist, now famous, were originally meant as a quick synopsis to Clinton campaign organizers of how Clinton’s campaign should be approached.

Why? That’s political policy that really affects people—and a smart politician knows it. Campaigns based on regulating morality in society have come and gone and social values dictated what was and wasn’t acceptable regardless of their pleas. Campaigns around nationalism or the mutual hatred of some other group can be successful, but usually leave a bad taste in the mouths of the electorate.

Campaigns around the economy—and more specifically—what politicians plan to do with/about the economy is perhaps the only time the rubber finally meets the road. I’ve addressed this issue in my most popular blog to date, “The Economic Role of Government” but I thought some clarification might be in order as I think the takeaway of that blog might seem to be: “Intervene in the economy? Bad idea.”

This might be a good default position for any government to take if they don’t know what to do, but let’s be honest: even in the most libertarian society in the world, power-centered politicians will likely never be able to keep their hands off their respective national economies. Furthermore, government intervention, though wildly complicated and highly volatile, is absolutely necessary at times. Let’s see if we can figure out how this can best be approached.

So, first off, the economy as a unified entity is an abstraction. Really, it is simply the result of many individuals and organizations being productive. So if a government is going to step in and intervene with an economy, they’re actually intervening with people’s enterprise or the results of their hard work.

Governments rely on a productive population for their very survival. So it is in any government’s best interest to, first, affirm that it values commerce, business, and enterprise. This can be done simply by politicians making speeches in which they say that they (and the government/people they represent) do indeed recognize the value of commerce. Easy enough, but do they mean it? That’s important.

I think we can all agree that there must be laws, and the laws must be enforced. We can’t have monopolies, we can’t have people not honoring contracts, we can’t have price gouging, we can’t have businesses cooking the books, we can’t have people exploiting other people, Ponzi schemes, false advertising, dishonest sales pitches, dangerous products, etc, etc, etc.

The problem governments run into at this level is making laws that favor their buddies—most of which are extremely wealthy campaign contributors. There should be laws against that sort of thing as well. But that’s a difficult law to get through as it directly and negatively affects those who make the laws. It’s a bit of the old snake eating its own tail sort of thing.

Beyond that, (and I mentioned this in “The Economic Role of Government”) certain members of society must actively promote the value of capitalism and its central role in prosperity, which, after all, is just another word for the accumulation of assets that can be converted into money (capital). But this might not be such a function of government as much as it a function of parents, teachers, opinion leaders and the like.

Furthermore, governments must look out for the interests of its people—both individually and the organizations that facilitate economic activity, otherwise known as domestic industry. They must listen to the concerns and grievances of their people and act on them. This is difficult in many ways and it brings us to a sort of important tangent:

Most often the issue of how a government can or should intervene in the economy arises in times of economic crisis. Otherwise, not many people care. They’re prosperous, things are working, people are happy and politicians are patting themselves on the back. Unfortunately, during times of crisis, people start looking to government for quick, decisive action. A great example of this might be the Occupy Wall Street protests in America:

Bad business practices, speculative bubbles and good old-fashioned greed had dealt a painful blow to the U.S. economy. People were angry, they protested, they broke windows and yelled a lot of rhyming slogans at tall buildings. Regular people didn’t know what was going on and politicians, who saw an election year on the horizon, got nervous. In an effort to appease the restless masses, politicians quickly proposed possible solutions, such as cranking up taxes for rich people, adding a tax to every Wall Street transaction, stiff regulation on banks and various other ill-conceived and poorly thought-out solutions—not to mention they called out their paramilitary police forces and started beating people.

This is most commonly where things go wrong in governments’ attempts at economic intervention. Crisis equals panic and everything is ignored except the attitude of: “Do whatever it takes to calm those people down.”

When this happens, it might be less helpful to listen to the angry masses and more helpful to enroll the services of outside, objective, nonpartisan, intelligent people who don’t have a stake in crony capitalism or the approval of the angry masses. This might include academics, intellectuals, economic analysts, think tanks, social critics, and researchers. There needs to be room for voices of dispassionate reason in all the madness.

This, however, is like finding an objective jury for a high-profile case and there is a tendency for even dispassionate people to become politicized.

Finally, governments must face up to the fact that they can’t control everything. Hurricanes barrel through metro areas, trading partners’ governments collapse, entire industries go on strike, whatever. However, with a strong connection to reality and an eye to the future, well-functioning governments can do their best to try and anticipate what their societies will want and need in the future and rather than react to crises, they might be able to cut a route into their ever-uncertain futures.

That about does it for the economic role of government—for now! Luckily, for those of you just itching for more, there’s an entire framework in THEE on the topic, or feel free to make comments or ask questions.

Social Currents

I hear it all the time in one form or another: “Society made me do it!”

My father, a judge, regularly regales me with tales from the courtroom. Some of this stuff would make your ears burn—and everybody’s got an excuse:

“I drove drunk because I got laid off and the economy is tough.”

“I kidnapped that little girl because my mother wasn’t nice to me.”

“I ran across the football field naked because my frat brothers said I had to for initiation.”

Dad doesn’t have much sympathy for that stuff. But society does indeed hold quite a bit of sway over us.

Don’t Mess With Science 

I’m finding out the hard way that going against the grain of prevailing ideas on truth and reality doesn’t make one very popular.

I’ve written a few blogs critiquing society’s stance on science. (Here’s one on neuroscience and on about the failures of the social sciences.) And they are not generally well-received, which comes as no great surprise.

Our culture is quite convinced that chemistry, physics and biology hold the keys to all truth: God can be found in a particle, humanity is chemico-electric signals in the brain, technology will save us all from poverty and injustice.

Imagine, for example, being a diligent climate scientist. Perhaps you discover some piece of evidence that suggests we’re not necessarily barreling toward a weather apocalypse—or, if we are, it’s got nothing to do with human activity.

I’m not saying one way or the other that this is the case, just putting a fun little “what-if” out there. What sort of response could you expect from trying to publish your findings? Complete and total marginalization, ostracism, loss of funding, etc. You might lose your job or be aligned without your consent with some right-wing political institution.

Let’s Talk Dollars and Sense

Ron Paul. Love him or hate him, Texas Senator Ron Paul offered the most consistent social philosophy of any politician in recent U.S. history. A staunch libertarian, Paul looked at common sense economics through the eyes of Ludwig von Mises, saw government as necessary but also a highly destructive force if unchecked, and he thought that people should generally be allowed to go about their lives however they chose as long as it didn’t infringe upon anyone else.

Despite a groundswell of grassroots support, Paul was consistently marginalized by the media and even by the elites in his own party. Why? Well, this is highly disputed, but my view is that the American public and was not prepared to accept responsibility for the mess it had gotten itself into and Americans—both Republican and Democrat—were still hanging on to the idea that some politician would swoop in and clean it all up for them.

Ron Paul wasn’t going to promise that. He saw government and politicians as a huge part of the problem.

Furthermore, the political establishment was not willing to concede any power—which would have been inevitable under Paul’s leadership.

He was a lone salmon swimming up a swift stream with bears lining its banks.

You and Society

You are a creative individual, there’s no doubt about that. But all of that energy, your identity and everything you want in life must happen within a social context. There’s no avoiding it. You are unbridled in what you can think and feel. But when you bring your thoughts, ideas, feelings and aspirations out into the world, there will be constraints. To offer a bit of prose straight from THEE’s Personal Endeavor framework:

“I and my endeavor are in a social setting, in certain close relationships, in a physical environment, part of a culture, at a moment in history.”

In a sense, you’ve got two options knowing that: 1) Swim with the current, go with what works and what’s accepted or 2) Throw caution to the wind and brave the inevitable storm of social resistance.

Either way, it certainly helps to be aware of yourself and your positioning within your particular social context. That brings us back to the opening lines of this blog. All of the people that have found themselves in my father’s courtroom were aware that their actions would not be well received in society. They knew and they will be held responsible.

This doesn’t mean you’ve got to be some sort of lemming. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

Tom’s Cry to be Understood 

I don’t try to be controversial in these blogs—but society would be one scary place without a word of dissent here and there. And please, let’s not go thinking that I’m all anti-science. Accepting the validity of science was a major leap for civilization. Besides that, it’s done us all wonders with medicine and technology and, all in all, offered huge strides into understanding our universe. I am often in awe.

Nor am I some sort of political revolutionary. I’m just pointing out the natural consequences of our particular brand of plutocratic pluralism, brought on by our current handling of our values. In many ways, western society is a beautiful construct that we and our predecessors have bravely fought and died for. So indulge me, readers.

There’s always room for improvement.

George's Quest

You’ve heard of The Beatles, right? Maybe you don’t like them (not a perspective I am capable of understanding) but I’m sure you know of them.

I am often just blown away how these regular, working-class boys got together and changed the course of music forever—just by getting down to business and harnessing their creativity.

Most of their songs came from John and Paul, who seemed born to work together, crafting pop hooks at first, then evolving their ideas into a pop-oriented experimentalism that will no doubt stand the test of time.

But what about the other two? Ringo always seemed like he was along for the ride. He loved to drum, he loved pulling silly antics and horsing around with the media. If I had to venture a guess, I would say Ringo is on a pleasure quest. For a time in his life, it got the better of him and, more so than any other Beatle, he struggled with addiction.

But George is an interesting case. He never seemed to revel in the fame as much as his cohorts and once remarked that it was a good day if he opened up the newspaper and he wasn’t in it. George was quiet, contemplative, which might have been viewed as weakness because he was often marginalized by John and Paul, whose sheer creativity was often overbearing. Generally, George was allowed one, maybe two, songs per album, though recording studio outtakes overflow with Harrison’s ideas.

When The Beatles took their sabbatical in India under the Maharishi Mahesh, it was all in good fun for most of them, but after the novelty had worn off, all but George left India, who would return sporadically throughout the rest of his life. He was, until he died, a devotee of the Hare Krishna faith and was an avid meditator and chanter.

I’ve been searching for a way, for quite some time, to communicate an important and fascinating aspect of THEE—the primal quests. Herein lies some of the most mystical and mysterious parts of being human. I saw a unique opportunity listening to The Beatles the other day, particularly in Harrison—who is a unique human being.

The Primal Quests are deeply personal, individual-oriented entities. It’s certainly none of my business to concern myself with anyone’s quest but my own—and even then, understanding can be difficult.

But I would submit that Harrison was a rarity in that he was truly on a Spiritual Quest. These people’s primary concern is achieving a oneness with the divine, a burning confrontation with God, the universe and all as unity. That’s George in a nutshell. He once said:

“There's high, and there's high, and to get really high - I mean so high that you can walk on the water, that high-that's where I'm going.”

An interesting and unique feature of the Your Better Self framework is that higher-level quests can gratify key features of all the levels below them. So, in a sense, a quest that’s higher up in the hierarchy can look, at times, like quests below them. And Spirituality sits at the top of the Primal Quest hierarchy.

This phenomenon comes through in Harrison’s life and music. At least a couple of quests manifest themselves in his song, “Within You Without You,” (full lyrics) where he sings, not only about the oneness of humanity, but also about the redeeming power of love.

Harrison shows an affinity to the Enlightenment Quest as well, singing:

We were talking/About the space between us all/And the people who hide themselves/Behind a wall of illusion/Never glimpse the truth. 

Those seeking Enlightenment, as George suggested, are looking beyond the illusions of truth set up by society or even our own, inner blockages such as subscriptions to ideology or an orientation toward reductionism or simplification. They want the real Truth.

Displaying features of the Salvation Quest, Harrison was the first-ever major rock act to hold a “concert for cause,” (something that is now commonplace) when he organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 to help Bangladeshi refugees.

I could go on. Obviously, his music speaks to his Creation Quest and we could easily argue it was all a search for Meaning. But I think you get the idea.

Readers, if this seems foreign to you, I urge you to click the links. There’s something in it for you, beyond musing about a favorite rock star.

We are all on a quest. Understanding it could equate to understanding your “purpose in life.” And who doesn’t want to know their purpose?