Philosophy Weekend: Alienation in America

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Today's Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?

Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.

It's notable that "liar" dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. "Liar" is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.

I personally like and admire President Obama very much, and while I don't agree with him about everything, I strongly favor Obamacare, and I have been constantly mystified by the virulent opposition to this moderate, common-sense legislation. I've lived through a lot of American history, but I've never really seen a conservative outcry like I'm seeing today. I really don't understand it.

Or do I? Analysts and philosophers like Jonathan Haidt have helped to map out the underlying societal and individual lifestyle tendencies that form the foundation for conservative or liberal political opinion, and this helps explain the division today. Psychological answers like Jonathan Haidt's are also valuable because they get us beyond the unfair judgement among liberals that conservatives or Republicans or Tea Partiers hate Obama because they are racist, or because they are dumb, or because they only listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News.

I'm not sure if most of my liberal friends know this, but I know that many people who hate Obama are not racist, are not stupid, and get information from many sources other than Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. As a software developer currently working in the Washington DC area, I get a chance to talk to many other software developers about politics, and I've met many smart, principled, decent, well-read, mature adults who hate Barack Obama and oppose Obamacare as stridently as I support it. If I were to word-cloud their impressions of Barack Obama, I bet I'd see the same word cloud as in the image above.

When alienation occurs, it becomes a force in itself. Jonathan Haidt's psychological answers help to explain how alienation may originate -- but this approach doesn't go far enough in helping to explain the toxic levels of hatred within American politics today, because it doesn't explain the ways that alienation builds upon alienation, the way that political opposition increases and reinforces itself.

At its root, alienation is a thing in itself. It becomes its own foundation, its own justification. A few years ago I read Richard Powers' novel The Echo Maker and learned about a real brain injury syndrome called Capgras delusion that causes people to suddenly fail to recognize their own loved ones as who they are. In this novel, a young man suffers a motorcycle accident with a bizarre effect: when he is visited in the hospital by his beloved sister, the person he trusts most in the world, he is gripped by the belief that she is an imposter, that she is not his sister. This person looks like his sister, but he knows that it is not his sister. No amount of evidence can equal this young man's instinctual belief -- tethered to some sadly incurable brain event -- that this person who looks and talks exactly like his sister is not his sister.

This is alienation. Liar. Such feelings of cultural or societal alienation have probably been behind every war or atrocity in human history, and then the trauma of war or atrocity triggers more alienation. Today, some are predicting that the virulent break over Obamacare can only end in another American civil war, 150 years after the first.

I trust that we won't take it that far, but the big question remains before us, and I'd love to hear what you think. What is the philosophical meaning of the political divide that is roiling the United States of America right now?

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Why Russell Brand is Right.
15 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Alienation in America"

Why should Obama be loved? Why should any President be loved? What is so bad about calling the POTUS a liar? Every President has lied. That's part of the job description. You have to go back to the mythical cherry tree chopping story of George Washington cheerily announcing "I cannot tell a lie!" to understand why the presidential role is so attached to the word "liar."

I don't think it's Obamacare. And I don't think it's entirely racism (although that's certainly been an ugly factor). It comes down to the broken covenant between the President and American. We promised you hope and change, but you can't find a job. We promised to take care of you, but we cut your food stamp programs, even as we gave ridiculous bailouts to privileged assholes who have not created jobs and really want to see you starve and suffer. We promised you Obamacare, but the website won't load. We promised progressive commitment under a supermajority, but we dropped the ball big time. We promised bipartisan commitment, but we were inverecundly shanghaied during the government shutdown.

Obama is, like all Presidents, a liar. But he's uniquely incompetent at lying in a way that has made the American people feel betrayed. We looked to him (rightly) for leadership and sincerity during his "A More Perfect Union" speech in 2008. When he confessed to being followed in a department store or hearing car doors lock in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, he conveyed the experience of being black in America in a way that no other leader had in a long while -- even if he was hamstrung in responding to the collective fury smogging up the air. When he supported same sex marriage, he gave the movement for equality a much-needed boost.

Obama is a magnificent speaker: a natural writer and, at his best, an indelible orator. But when his "red line" inconsistencies are so flagrant, when his shaky ability to lead or negotiate using hard politics and ballsy brokering is so flagrantly exposed on a regular basis, there is a tremendous disconnect between the acceptable lies he needs to tell us to keep our country together and the magnanimous truths he needs to tell us to restore our national spirit. It's a betrayal of the President's duality, one that I think will be hashed out violently in the history books. But we are all eerily united, progressives and Tea Party types alike, in our contempt for him -- especially in the wake the Snowden/FISA revelations. And that's hardly an alienating position at all. Not by my definition of what it means to be an American.

by WIREMAN on

Levi.....i need healthcare, for sure. It was my understanding from the outset of these proposed health care initiatives that those of us not covered by our lazy employers would become insured thru our jobs. Now I find out that I have to negotiate the same confusing waters that are already there, meaning the insurance companies. I was banished by blue cross when my wife's cancer treatments were deemed preconditions after a masectomy and 8 months of chemo and radiation treatments. Essentially their move caused her total mental breakdown and basically ruined our lives as man and wife. We got a divorce so she could get public assistance and I moved to Frederick as a result. Now I am faced with the threat of fines and a mandate that makes me get the same insurance.

I make my money the hard way and i pay my hosp. bills promptly, as they say, " out of pocket?" The whole insurance system in this country of ours drains us, home insurance, car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, business insurance ........ this is what bothers me. Why am I and everybody else threatened with fines, while employers get a free ride for another year? Why are the websites full of useless info or no info? This whole fiasco has created so much confusion amongst the uninsured that now there will be a whole new industry, agents to sort it out and help you get the insurance. Is it really the Governments job or right to mandate this? I have a month till the Dec. 15 date and am still confused. I go to the insurance sites and find the plans i can afford useless, unless something catastrophic happens. I think the government is rushing this into law, especially with all the confusion there has been. Like I say I pay my health bills with my cash, it's my business. Tell my why the govt. should threaten me with a fine? That's not the land of the free i was born in.

by WIREMAN on

Oh by the way once we were cancelled, Carole jean recieved minimal treatment a bottle of morphine and was at the mercy of the system, she died 2years later.

by WIREMAN on

There will be no civil war. Obama will go down as just another pawn of the corporate powers that control us all.

by Levi Asher on

These are powerful responses -- and both surprising to me. I have a lot to say in response, but I'll keep it super-brief since I want this to be a conversation, not a monologue.

Ed, I like your point that "liar" is part of the job description for President. Well, still, when I hear your list of objections, I still feel that the target for your anger should be someone other than this President. From the bad economy to the overpowering military violating our privacy, these are all problems that he inherited, and has been trying -- without enough success, I'm sure -- to improve. I don't mind Obama taking the heat for them -- he's President, after all -- but it bothers me that people think that Obama is the *cause* of our bad economy, or the *cause* of our military security policy. That makes me feel like we aren't learning the right lessons from these problems, and are just blaming Obama for holding the leadership position while we make slow progress towards fixing them.

And, WIREMAN, it's shocking and horrible that you had to divorce your wife in order to allow her to qualify for cancer treatment. Goddamnit, if this doesn't show exactly why we *need* Obamacare, I don't know what does. Sure, it's not yet working as well as you need it to be. But the opponents of Obamacare aren't trying to make it work at all. The opponents of Obamacare are trying to repeal it so that people will still have to do insane things like divorce their spouses to get them health insurance. If Obamacare had been in place a few years ago (like maybe if it had been enacted in the 90s, the last time a liberal President tried to pass healthcare reform) then your wife would have had health insurance. The fact that Obamacare came too late for her is terrible, but it's not a reason to give up on Obamacare.

by Holly Palance on

"It comes down to the broken covenant between the President and American. We promised you hope and change, but you can't find a job."

Actually, no. It comes down to people who, not only naively but obliviously expected this presidency to be unlike any other in the past forty years.

It comes down to the same people who hate Hilary Clinton and would have vilified her or any other democratic candidate had they won. It comes down to competitive and visible activists on the true left (Cornel West) vilifying those whom they deem to be in their way.

It comes down, ultimately, to people who expect ridiculous purity from any democratic president who falls within in a succession of presidents following the outline of larger political trends.

Before you rail against Obama as an end in itself, notice that the country has shifted to the right slowly and relentlessly by over the past forty years. Consider the possibility that moving back toward the left might happen tomorrow, but more likely will have to occur slowly, over time -- and that's providing we keep up the momentum, as we've failed to do for the past forty years.

The right got their foothold in the '60s, when Johnson wasn't left enough for college students' litmus test, which ushered in the age of Nixon, who seems positively liberal to us now in terms of his social programs. If we want a government that actually opposes global privatization, then we have to stop tearing down every president who's a centrist when the opposing candidate is on the far right. We can shift this country back to a more humane position toward the middle and lower class. To do so, we have to stop parroting the reflexive hatred of the right and the false purism of the true left, which has its roots in modernism (Lionel Trilling called the '60s "modernism in the streets"). Modernism, the imposition of the supposed ideal over the living world. Look how well that worked out in the world of architecture: Robert Moses creating a kind of massive diaspora in New York, rendering innumerable people homeless and parts of the Bronx completely uninhabitable in his pursuit of the pure flow of highways.

"Obama is, like all Presidents, a liar. But he's uniquely incompetent at lying in a way that has made the American people feel betrayed."

It's statements like that which suggest the writer has no knowledge of American history. How exactly were the Bush presidents less "uniquely incompetent"? Obama lies less often than either Bush, and the supposed lies people talk about are often, as with Clinton, a matter of ad hominem barking. The difference is not in the character, competence or delivery of the man who his president. It is entirely in the manner in which those who truly run the country construe, report and repeat the President's words and then engineer public response. Reasonably literate people have known this since the '80s and the publishing of the book *Unreliable Sources*. You might as well say that posters portraying Obama as a gorilla or a Muslim terrorist are his fault as well.

by Levi Asher on

Holly, I think you're totally on target about the nation's 40 year shift to the right, about how LBJ's failed attempt to govern as a centrist led to the election of Nixon ... that's exactly what I worry about when I suggest that we need to stand by our liberal leaders with a little more fortitude, even when their performance is frustrating or improvements are hard to see. The only two alternatives for voters right now are to empower the party that caused all our problems -- broken healthcare system, crashed economy, military on steroids -- or to stand with the frustrating but well-intentioned liberal politicians who are doing their best to fix the problems, and making slow progress. I don't want to give up and declare defeat.

Still, Holly, I wish you wouldn't say things like "the writer [the previous commenter] has no knowledge of American history". That kind of insulting response never leads to a productive discussion. Hope you don't mind me pointing that out, and thanks for your comment.

Student protestors and elements of the the left opposed LBJ because of his decision to commit the U.S. to a full-scale prosecution of total war in Vietnam.

"From the bad economy to the overpowering military violating our privacy, these are all problems that he inherited, and has been trying -- without enough success, I'm sure -- to improve."

Just to be technically correct, the violations of privacy have been conducted by the FBI, CIA, and the NSA, not the Pentagon.

Obama has done nothing to curtail them, because he is not a civil libertarian, and believes in wholesale government violation of 4th Amendment rights. He signaled this when, as a U.S. Senator, he voted to approve the FISA bill authorizing warrantless wiretaps and retroactively immunizing telcoms who broke the law by cooperating with the Bush administration to provide them with illegal wiretaps.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Peter -- yeah, I don't deny what you're saying about LBJ or Obama. LBJ was guilty of terrible misjudgement in attempting to win the Vietnam War despite all evidence that the Vietnamese people were solidly against the American presence. I would not have been able to support LBJ in the 60s either. Still, it's a terrible fact that LBJ's failure to lead empowered the Nixon administration to commit us even further into Vietnam, with even greater disregard for human rights. I think it would be a comparable mistake for voters to express their disappointment with Obama by empowering his opponents to roll back the small progress he has made on healthcare reform. That would be a step in the wrong direction, just as Nixon's election was.

About the violations of privacy -- well, when I tie the invasions of privacy to the Pentagon, I'm implicitly referring to a blog post I wrote previously, titled "If You Want Privacy, Be A Pacifist". My point in this article was that, as long as the USA maintains an aggressive and hyperactive military presence all over the world, we will be forced to maintain an aggressive and hyperactive "security" (translation: invasion of privacy) policy at home. Militarism is absolutely incompatible with individual privacy. I consider this a deeply basic truth -- and I think it's a point that far too few people take the time to consider. This is why I pointedly *do* place the blame for the NSA, FBI and CIA's invasions of privacy on our nation's militarism.

by WIREMAN on

Levi, you really didn't answer my questions. I asked about the fine? I asked about paying for health insurance that i'll maybe use? I also asked why the businesses are getting an extra year? Hey, if Obamacare is so good why? What really pisses me off about all this is the fines, what gives the government the right to fine me over something that is a choice? You opened the health care issue for discussion, you feel that Obamacare is the way to go, tell me why? Please,all I see is me spending more money that i don't have to spend for some what if's. Me buying the same insurance I'd buy if I chose to go that route, which as a free citizen of this country should be my choice. It's time to move towards heath-care not money grubbing profit oriented health insurance. If i'm wrong, please explain it to me. I feel this is a bullying tactic by the government, caused by their threat of a fine. It's a door to our pockets that should not be opened.

by Levi Asher on

WIREMAN, I have also had to shop for insurance for my family on the open market in the years before Obamacare. It was ridiculously expensive -- the price I was quoted was $1600/month for my family -- far, far more than we were spending in medical costs. The one time I had to appeal a question to the insurance company, and contest a medical charge that I didn't think was fair, I was told that the company had judged my appeal as denied. I said, wait a minute, you're the judge of my appeal against you? They said yes -- if you don't like it you can try to take us to court and see how that works out for you. Buying health insurance on the open market as a freelancer with an uninsured family before Obamacare felt like being mugged.

I don't have to tell you this, WIREMAN. Your story is much worse than mine, and as your friend I wish this weren't true. You actually had to divorce your wife in order to allow her to get insurance that would cover her cancer treatments. Is it not obvious that the USA's healthcare system was a complete disaster before Obamacare?

So now you feel bullied, you feel it is unfair that you have to pay a fine. Well, really, there is nothing for me to do but acknowledge and accept that you feel this way. Maybe if you hadn't been mugged by a vile and completely heartless health insurance profit farm crime operation for the past few decades, you wouldn't think of health insurance in such dark and paranoid terms. Health insurance is supposed to help people who are sick. In the corrupt free market of the last few decades, it hasn't been doing that. With Obamacare, they will make mistakes at first, but the intention is to do a better job. I hope you will give it a fair chance with an open mind.

by WIREMAN on

Fair enough answer Levi.....thanks

by Michael.Norris on

Hey - I was paying for my own health insurance as a self-employed person and I paid a lot of money for it and got very little in return. Now under obamacare I pay half of what I was paying, my deductible is lower, and I don't have pre-existing condition exclusion. And I will get actual coverage instead of denials. The Health Care System in this country is still screwed up, but hey - this is a start.

As far as the glitches in the new website - Hey Levi - you've been there like I have - something always goes wrong when you roll out a massive IT project based on a sacred deadline.

by mtmynd1 on

Re: " What is the philosophical meaning of the political divide that is roiling the United States of America right now?"

In today's political world I see a battle between intellect and wisdom with wisdom on the losing end. Wisdom, unfortunately, has little to no value over what we, America, has become over the past 40+ years when the voice of so-called Conservatism became louder and more influential in a society which conversely became more Liberal... think of the 'Scales of Justice" and that relationship to the intense dualistic government we have become.

Wisdom certainly views this current split in governing with the challenge between the Right and the Left viewpoints and who will eventually dominate. Neither will dominate but only hold sway in a truly democratic atmosphere until one or the other side becomes too powerful and proves to be a definite threat to America's guarantee of Freedom as mandated.

It is obvious, (at least should be), we are at a pivoting point where the country's attitudes have closely aligned with the dynamics of the current times, thus leaving the political forces at a loss to how our social systems should be safely regulated. Are we still to be the "police to the world" such as we've been since WWII? How much freedom does the citizenry need versus what that same citizenry desires? Can our current economic system afford an America that we have fought over 237 years to attain? (IMHO this is has to be the most important question to be answered).

It's understood by our people that something is totally out-of-balance in government but are (seemingly) unable to clearly see how to correct the problem. Intellectually we are drowning in various opinions and ideas but seem to struggle with concise, intelligent ways to straighten up our act and continue forward. I attribute much of this chaos and confusion on far too many voices opining far too much information (TMI) to far too few ears willing to listen. All this cacophony spells unhappiness and that makes for a restless and even unstable populace... a society who is fearful and uneasy with their lives. Can we agree that basic problem is one of economics more than anything else?

We are at a juncture politically where the lack of wisdom from our elected officials is virtually non-existant. When there is no wisdom in any level of leadership, a country suffers. When a nation believes that the pursuit of money equals the pursuit of happiness, it finds itself in a dead end alleyway exhausted and confused as to what is important? Intellect itself is unable to create a state of happiness for intellect resorts to distortion that money can correct any and all social ills. Given the extraordinary wealth America has, clearly it has not aided in the social good but rather has weakened it and will continue doing so until wisdom steps up to the plate and shows reveals it's light.

by Matthew on

I know that this is an old post, and old comments, but I was just reading through your site and thought I might have something to add, being one of those who actively dislike Obama.

First, I appreciate you not dismissing the right-wing as being stupid and paranoid, as so many on the left do. I am myself a published poet, hold a BA in English Literature, and am an avid student of history.

Why do conservatives distrust Obama? The answer's fairly easy: it's the same reason that liberals distrusted Bush: it's the left-right divide, man. BUT, and here's where it starts getting more interesting, is that in both cases, Bush and Obama, they came under increasing attack from their own parties. Bush regarding Iraq (or more specifically, about the lack of WMDs in Iraq), and Obama regarding the Affordable Care Act (which is turning out to be anything but affordable).

Both of these men stood in front of America and said one thing, when the reality was something completely different. No, there were no WMDs in Iraq. No, you cannot keep your healthcare coverage if you like it and No, it won't be affordable and Yes, the entire bill was cooked up at the behest of insurance giants, just like the entire Iraq War was cooked up at the behest of oil giants. And Yes, the ACA will be a complete disaster just like the Iraq War was before it, because neither one of these things were done in the best interests of the people, but both were done for corporate political interests.

I guess I don't really see the difference between the two. In my mind, the ultimate reason for the excessive vitriol between the left and right is because there is little actual difference these days between the left and right (at least at the leadership level), and every time a liberal or conservative goes screaming about the other side it's because he's trying hard to convince himself his side is different when he knows deep down it isn't.

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