Economics

There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi

Chapter 43

The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world

Chapter 44

Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger
Thus one can endure indefinitely

Chapter 20

Cease learning, no more worries
Respectful response and scornful response
How much is the difference?
Goodness and evil
How much do they differ?
What the people fear, I cannot be unafraid
So desolate! How limitless it is!
The people are excited
As if enjoying a great feast
As if climbing up to the terrace in spring
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling
So weary, like having no place to return
The people all have surplus
While I alone seem lacking
I have the heart of a fool indeed – so ignorant!
Ordinary people are bright
I alone am muddled
Ordinary people are scrutinizing
I alone am obtuse
Such tranquility, like the ocean
Such high wind, as if without limits
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly
I alone am different from them
And value the nourishing mother

Chapter 29

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Chapter 22

Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them
What the ancients called "the one who yields and remains whole"
Were they speaking empty words?
Sincerity becoming whole, and returning to oneself

2

Five verses from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work.

view /Tao2015
Monday, February 2, 2015 09:25 pm
Rippon Train Station in Virginia
Story
Levi Asher

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

Adam Hochschild, holding the seat of honor next to Lewis Lapham, emphasized the shock of the fast slide to total war, which took nearly every progressive European thinker by surprise. Many political pundits and activists had been absorbed in lofty socialist or idealistic agendas when the war broke out. "The Internationalist dream went up in smoke at this moment," Hochschild said.

I was glad to find Michael Kazin on this panel, as I had also once read his biography of the famous Christian revivalist William Jennings Bryan, a perennial Democratic candidate for President who is now mostly known as the anti-Darwin foil in Inherit the Wind. I'd originally read A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan because I was interested in Bryan's career as a religious revivalist, but I was fascinated by the unexpected discovery that this farm-country traditionalist was also a devout pacifist who did God's work in trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson not to enter the European war. At the New York Public Library panel, Kazin spoke of the wide variety of anti-war activities in the USA before and after we entered the war in 1917, including a women's march down Fifth Avenue and popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be A Soldier".

The final member of the morning panel was Jack Beatty, NPR pundit and author of The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began. Beatty stated crisply a key point that is too often forgotten: there is a single human emotion that is the engine of war. The emotion is not greed, not hatred, but fear.

After the morning panel we heard stirring tributes by Jessica Tuchman Mathews and David Nasaw to Andrew Carnegie, another famous figure of history who is not typically remembered as a pacifist, though he dedicated his life to the cause. Nasaw referred to Carnegie as a "fool for peace", and told enough stories to justify this honorific that I will certainly feel much more humbled by the benefactor's good intentions the next time I walk into Carnegie Hall.

The afternoon session "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?" was designed to pivot the conversation from history to activism, and this was the session I was most looking forward to. Lewis Lapham had invited a lively group, anchored by the peace and ecology activist Leslie Cagan. Next to Leslie was Steve Fraser, whose upcoming book The Age of Acquiescence criticizes our society's complacency about abuses of capitalism.

An interesting dynamic became evident as Cagan and Fraser each tried to answer the question "where are the voices for peace now?" in light of their own backgrounds and familiar activist communities. Leslie Cagan spoke of pacifism in terms of its connection to issues of racial equality, environmental policy and gender discrimination. She pointed out that the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels is the United States military.

Steve Fraser, meanwhile, became so enmeshed in a tangent about economic justice that I started to feel annoyed, because I began to suspect that he believes we will only be able to solve the problem of war after we overthrow capitalism. Personally, while I probably will be happy to help overthrow capitalism, I am definitely not willing to wait to overthrow militarism until that's done first and I certainly do not agree with those who say that peace is impossible until Wall Street is defeated. (I personally think it's the other way around: we won't be able to solve most other problems in the world until we discover peace, and once we do discover peace, many other problems will easily cure themselves.)

The third panelist was David Cannadine, an extremely vivid and confident speaker who at one point deservingly lambasted an elderly questioner who complained about Cannadine's kind words about Barack Obama. As much as I enjoyed Cannadine's performance, I felt that his approach to the panel was disappointing in the same way that Cagan's and Fraser's was: he was not primarily there to speak about pacifism. He spoke convincingly of issues of leadership style, and of the odd twists of history that determine our fate, but he did not indicate at any point during this panel that he felt there were any significant voices for peace worth mentioning today. Nor, for that matter, did Cagan or Fraser.

This is not David Cannadine's or Leslie Cagan's or Steve Fraser's fault. They're probably right: pacifism currently has no currency at all as a political philosophy. Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian addressed this directly in his introduction to the event when he pointed out that pacifism never recovered from the debacle of the Munich peace agreement that empowered Nazi Germany to seize Czechoslovokia in 1938. David Cannadine referred to this later when he pointed out that "pacifist" is now considered equivalent to "appeaser". This is indeed the major challenge that any pacifist must be able to respond to today. But anybody who considers this a fatal challenge to pacifism is certainly not trying hard enough.

Just as the afternoon panel failed to name any individual voices for pacifism who are making a significant difference today, it also failed to identify any highly relevant peace organizations in the world. There is Greenpeace, and there is Occupy Wall Street, and there is Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and these are all more or less tangentially pacifist to some degree. But these organizations each have specific purposes other than world peace itself. This panel discussion was called "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?", but it seems the world has a big empty space where a vibrant peace movement should be.

Or does it? Would we have been able to name some examples of voices for peace today if Lewis Lapham had invited Medea Benjamin, or Yoko Ono, or Nicholson Baker? Maybe so, and I wish they could all have been included, along with many others too. But the truth that was revealed by this afternoon session's scattered attention span is an important truth in itself, and I think it had to be revealed to help us realize what we must do next.

It was such a subtle omission that I barely even noticed it myself until near the end of the question-and-answer session, when somebody else pointed it out: "I'd like to bring this back," he said, "to the main question, which really hasn't been discussed at all. Where are the voices for peace today?"

I left the room with the question still in my head, and I'm going to keep thinking about it. If we don't know where the peace movement is in the world right now, maybe we need to get off our butts and create one.

22

Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty, Leslie Cagan, Steve Fraser and David Cannadine discuss pacifism at the New York Public Library.

view /NYPLVoicesForPeace
Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am
Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty at the New York Public Library
Story
Levi Asher

I was recently pondering the upcoming midterm elections here in the USA while stopped dead in rush hour traffic on a Fairfax, Virginia highway. Far away by the side of the road, I spotted a freaky-looking old white-bearded guy waving a sign that I had to strain to read.

I guessed that his sign bore a political message, but based on his expression of plucky determination I could not guess whether it would be a message I'd agree with or not. This gave me a unique opportunity to form an advance opinion of this person's character and intelligence based only on his appearance -- blue jeans, work shirt, a funky-enough hat -- and to compare my initial impression to the impression that would follow once I could read the words on his sign.

Based on initial impression, I liked this guy, because it takes a lot of guts to stand at a crowded highway intersection all by yourself and wave a sign at frustrated rush hour drivers. I also liked him because he had a pleasant and intelligent face, and because I tend to always like people with strong opinions and the courage to stand alone. As my car inched closer to where he stood, I really hoped his sign would say something deeply insightful.

Disppointment followed quickly. The sign contained five words:

Enjoy
Barack
Obama's
Lost
America

The joke was on me. I could only have been more unimpressed if he'd taken the trouble to spell out "B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I".

Even so, I had trapped myself, because I could not deny that my initial impression of this stranger had been hopefully positive. I now wished to understand the obviously deep ideological gulf between me and him. I would not take the easy way out and now declare that he must be a brainless loudmouth, or a likely racist, or a certifiable nut job. These answers were too easy, and were probably untrue. I have known enough thoughtful and knowledgeable people who hate and fear Obama that I've come to realize that there must somewhere be a logical foundation for this position, even though the logic remains invisible to me.

Yes, I am still mystified at the intensity of the fear and hatred Barack Obama inspires. I was his supporter from the beginning, and am even more so today. I certainly don't always agree with him, but I have no doubt that his performance as President has been extremely impressive, that he has maintained his dignity and calm resolve against an amazingly intense barrage of opposition. This example of dignity is so remarkable that I know there will eventually be airports and monuments and national parks dedicated to Barack Obama, and that he will eventually be ranked as one of our very best and most effective Presidents.

And yet I know that I am often alone in this opinion. Even many of my liberal friends are surprised when I tell them I still like Barack Obama. Perhaps it's because I feel so utterly alone in this opinion that I badly wanted to relate to that guy with the dumb sign by the highway in Fairfax, Virginia. He and I probably don't share much in common, but we're both used to standing alone.

Election Day 2014 is a couple days away, and the shape of our Congress and Senate is at stake. Literary Kicks has endorsed candidates in many elections dating all the way back to Bob Dole vs. Bill Clinton in 1996, and I hope some people are eagerly awaiting our 2014 endorsements, even though we've supported liberal/Democratic candidates virtually across the board since then. I'm happy to announce our endorsements here today.

It won't take long to get this out. Litkicks says "vote blue" across the board (yeah, I know, once again, no surprises here today). We especially say "vote blue" if you live in a state where a hotly contested Senate seat is at stake, because we'd hate to see the Senate fall under the control of obstructionist Republicans and give them more power to block common-sense initiatives that we badly need.

I'm happy to be specific: the 2014 midterm election will have a major effect on legislative options for two hot-button issues that matter very much. I’d like to briefly explain my thinking on both.

1. Obamacare

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 was an essential step in the right direction for a country that had fallen far behind nearly every other modern nation in the world in public health standards. Despite the incredible barrage of negative coverage Obamacare has gotten, it has proven successful by every measure. Health insurance is now more affordable for almost all Americans, and sick people who previously were literally forced into bankruptcy or inadequate care because they could not get health insurance are now guaranteed an affordable rate. This is in itself a gigantic achievement, but there's more. Along with enabling a much healthier American populace, Obamacare has also saved taxpayers money, just as original Congressional Budget Office predictions said it would. Obamacare has been an absolutely gigantic success, and it’s simply obscene and insulting that many Republican candidates, including Kentucky’s corporate stooge Mitch McConnell, are still threatening to use the increased power of a Republican Senate (if they win in the midterms) to harm Obamacare’s effectiveness. I believe that politicians like Mitch McConnell should be run out of town for attempting to disable a health insurance reform law that has literally helped and saved the lives of millions of Americans while also saving taxpayers money.

2. The Environment

Neither Democratic nor Republican candidates have been particularly powerful on ecological issues, and it’s clear that the American people will need to lead our timid politicians by the nose to get them to finally understand that this is an issue we all care about. Long term, we citizens must speak out much more loudly and demand faster action. In the short term, though, it's a sad truth that a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014 would bring even more obstructionism and dysfunction in an area where there has already been too much of both.

For these two reasons above all — and also for several others — Literary Kicks has a clear endorsement choice in 2014. We support Democratic candidates across the board, and we hope you will too.

Please feel free to share your thoughts as Election Day approaches by posting a comment. All opinions are welcome. Even if you think ebola is Barack Obama's fault, we'd love to hear what you have to say.

3

As the midterm elections in the USA arrive, at least two critical issues are at stake: healthcare reform and the environment.

view /Election2014
Sunday, November 2, 2014 08:38 am
Rippon, Virginia, with a view of the Potomac River and Leesylvania
Story
Levi Asher

I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.

I thought New York politics was unpredictable, with the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani running around. But our Eric Cantor and Dave Brat and George Allen and Ken Cuccinelli have got them beat. The crazy reached a crescendo this week with the stunning news that our once popular and likable former governor Bob McDonnell has been found guilty of accepting bribes from and delivering favors to a businessman named Jonnie Williams.

This businessman had befriended the governor's wife, Maureen, who was also charged with the same crimes. Only two years ago, many believed that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were destined for the White House. They will now be spending many years in jail.

Normally a husband and wife found guilty together could take solace in each other's company, but this is not possible here because Bob's lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to pin the blame solely on Maureen, who had apparently been the conduit for most of the gifts. Surprisingly, these gifts were not substantial political donations given with insidious intent for major policy changes, but rather trivial and showy displays of wealth traded for minor favors: a Rolex watch, a loaner Ferrari, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a lavish wedding for one of the McDonnells' five children.

Attempting to defend himself while throwing his wife under the bus, Bob McDonnell declared in court that their marriage had broken down years ago, that Maureen had been infatuated with Jonnie Williams, and that she had engineered the bribes without his full understanding, even though he had delivered small favors in return. The jury didn't buy it. Worse, the tawdry testimony shockingly contradicted the public image of this conservative "pro-marriage" Republican politician, because McDonnell's appeal was always grounded in his Christian fundamentalist background, and on his outspoken belief in family values.

If I were a vengeful liberal Democrat, I would be gleeful about the ungraceful fall of Bob McDonnell. This would be especially easy for me because I had always found McDonnell extremely uninspiring, as plastic as a middle-aged Ken doll.

But I'm avoiding the temptation to gloat about the scandal, because I always try to look beyond petty politics towards grander themes. I also can't pretend to believe that Democratic politicians are much less likely than Republicans to get caught committing outrageous crimes. (Yes, I still remember John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich).

After the verdict came out this week, I found myself defending poor Bob and Maureen McDonnell to a few friends who declared themselves disgusted with the former Governor's dishonesty and greed. Curiously to my friends, I could not agree that dishonesty and greed had much to do with the fall of Bob McDonnell. That seemed to me a shallow and superficial explanation. As we so often find to be the case lately, once we even begin to look deeply at the facts of a crime, we find that the common explanation of the motivation does not stand up to close examination.

I don’t think we discover anything interesting by identifying greed as Bob McDonnell's fatal flaw, because this makes greed sound like a disease that inhabited and infected him. Everything would have been fine, according to this model, if a good man hadn’t been spoiled by an unfortunate psychological toxin. Uncontrollable urges of greed infected Bob McDonnell first, according to this model, and then his second sin of dishonesty followed as he began lying to cover his secret tracks.

However, an examination of McDonnell’s evident courtroom strategy contradicts this. He never acted like a person with a guilty secret. The former Governor insisted on testifying extensively in court to protest his innocence. He even made the devastating decision to publicly break with his wife, who is not only the mother of his children but had also always been the public symbol of his political stance in favor of strong "traditional" (read: not gay) marriage, all to establish his innocence. It's hard to imagine a man who knew he was guilty making so dramatic and destructive a choice.

It turned out that he could not persuade a jury to believe in his innocence, but the terrible personal sacrifice McDonnell made to try to prove his innocence strongly suggests that he believed he was innocent himself. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde model of a good man with a demonic other side does not match this behavior. Dr. Jekyll would not have bothered to try to prove in court that he did not sometimes turn into Mr. Hyde.

Another reason the superficial explanation falls short is that Bob McDonnell showed no lifelong pattern of greed for wealth. If he'd ever really prized expensive watches and prestige cars and lush weddings for his children, he could have pursued a career in banking or finance instead of electoral politics. He had the born gifts to make a lot of money legally: a winning personality, a capable leadership style, enough brains to earn a law degree. A career in politics is nowhere near as lucrative (even with the bribes) as a career in business or finance, which suggests that Bob McDonnell was more interested in the ego gratification of becoming a successful public figure than in the material gratification of quietly attaining wealth.

So, if Bob McDonnell was not possessed by inner demons of uncontrollable greed, what can explain his crimes? The first key is found in the fact, revealed during the trial, that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were not wealthy at all, that their finances were nearly a mess. As available financial records show, this political family with five kids was always struggling to manage its budget, even while living in the Governor's mansion. They never took the time to cash in on book contracts or speaking engagements, and never managed to put serious money into their own bank accounts even as the Governor's low-tax/high-growth policies helped other Virginians who were much more wealthy than they would ever be.

Bob and Maureen were both from modest middle-class backgrounds, and both had worked hard to gain success. Strangely, once they met Jonnie Williams and began receiving his gaudy gifts, Bob and Maureen McDonnell developed a strange habit of getting their pictures taken with these displays of wealth. They were not only eager to drive around in the white Ferrari seen at the top of this page: they were eager to be photographed in it.

Some journalists speculated that a well-publicized photo of McDonnell showing off a new Rolex wristwatch hurt his defense. But it's an essential point that the impulse to be seen wearing a Rolex is different from the desire to own a Rolex. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

It all comes together when we consider a third essential point: Bob McDonnell was a rising star in a Republican party that worshipped financial success. He was not personally wealthy, but he was eager to continue to rise in a social milieu that valued wealth as a primary proof of grace.

With this last point, we now have enough evidence to piece together an entire theory of Bob McDonnell's downfall. He thought he was supposed to accept these gifts. The whirlwind of his fast rise into national politics, and perhaps the stress of being considered a likely Vice-Presidential pick for the fabulously wealthy Mitt Romney, had left him grasping for a foothold in a world above his station. He was trying, foolishly, to play the game of big-money politics correctly when he accepted the bribes.

It was not urges to gluttony but rather feelings of inferiority that deluded Bob McDonnell into accepting gifts from Jonnie Williams. Jonnie Williams appeared to the Governor to represent something greater than what he himself had: vast wealth in the private sector, a know-how about the muscle power of money, an inborn ease with the world of luxurious possessions.

It's entirely possible that Bob McDonnell didn't care at all about Rolexes or Ferraris. He only cared to be seen with them. He hinted at this during his trial testimony when asked about his wife's acceptance of a Louis Vuitton handbag. "I wouldn't recognize a Louis Vuitton handbag if I saw it," he said. Courtroom reporters speculated that this line didn't persuade the jury, but perhaps it should have. It may be the truest thing he said during the entire trial.

I find it remarkably useful to analyze news events in the way, to look past the surface and try to construct a psychological story that encompasses all known facts of the case and still rings true. This process often has the positive side effect of generating a general sense of sympathy, and indeed I do feel very sorry for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell right now. I didn't like them much when Bob was Governor, and I never thought he deserved to be Governor, but I also don't think that he and Maureen deserve to be utterly disgraced.

Reporters said that Bob and Maureen both wept (separately, in different parts of the courtroom) during the reading of the verdict. I suspect that Bob McDonnell cried because he was surprised, because he really does believe himself to be innocent. In the broadest sense, he really was innocent, too innocent — a babe in the woods, lost in the hall of Rolexes, playing a game whose rules he didn’t understand. It’s because he was so innocent that he was just found guilty.

As sorry as I feel for Bob McDonnell, I feel even more sorry for Maureen McDonnell, who was just demonized and ridiculed (“a nutbag”) by her own husband's lawyers and witnesses in a public courtroom. I’m sure she would have preferred to have spent the time being waterboarded. Maureen's core motivation, it turns out, was her poignant love for a flashy, glad-handing businessman. Her beloved Jonnie Williams also turned witness against her, so it’s disturbing to imagine how alone she feels right now. She seems nearly as tragic a character as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

The entire saga of Bob and Maureen McDonnell seems to take on the dimensions of a Buddhist fable. They were both starry-eyed with maya, with the endless refractions of glittering illusion. The handsome and confident Governor appeared to be Vice-Presidential material, but he was staggering inside, trying to figure out the rules of a game that was playing too fast, all the while trying to deal with the soul-crushing disappointment of a marriage gone bad while smiling for the photos with his wife on his arm. Both were in the grip of mad desire, the wheel of samsara. The luxuriant objects they reached for turned out to be empty. It all dissolved into dust.

I refer to this as a Buddhist fable because the concepts of karma and dharma seem to ring truer in our eternal judgement of Bob and Maureen McDonnell than words like “guilty” or “corrupt”. This is useful when we compare (as we should) their behavior to our own expectations of how we might behave in their place. If we believe the Governor and his wife were suddenly possessed by insane greed for shiny possessions, we can flatter ourselves that they caught a disease we don’t seem to have fully caught ourselves yet, and that, temporarily at least, we are safe from ever making similar mistakes.

But once we understand that they were blinded by maya in the grip of dharma, we can begin to relate more personally to their stories, and hopefully pick up some deeper lessons from the tawdry affair. This is why Buddhist fables are useful. If any of us think we are too smart to avoid ever making the kinds of mistakes Bob and Maureen McDonnell made, even in our own humble little worlds, we’d probably do well to start checking our own maya every day.

5

The Bob McDonnell scandal was about much more than greed. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

view /BobAndMaureenMcDonnell
Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm
The Buddha watches over Bob McDonnell
Story
Levi Asher

A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.

I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.

And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.

I am not pretending to be free of envy, which is of course one of the seven mortal sins. I'll confess right now that I sometimes feel bitter envy and even irrational hatred for certain famous writers who've undeservedly "made it big", like the popular novelist Jonathan Lethem. Lethem drives me crazy because his background is so similar to mine -- same generation, same city, same ethnic background, same formative literary influences, same Talking Heads albums. I don't think Lethem's novels are very good, and yet he's a gigantic success, wealthy and famous, and I'm a scrubby blogger with a day job.

I may as well admit that this painful literary envy of mine sometimes spirals out of control, and involves not just Lethem but several of my other generational literary peers. Jonathan Franzen is even more wealthy and famous than Jonathan Lethem, and I envy him too, though not as much, because at least this Jonathan is a good enough writer to deserve the prizes he's won. I used to resent the vast success of David Foster Wallace until David Foster Wallace committed suicide -- a bracing existential reminder for me that maybe I don't have it so bad in my humble perch after all.

There's a point to my embarrassing fit of honesty here, and the point is this: I sometimes feel great envy, but it would never occur to me to envy a successful businessperson. What I have always yearned for is the thrill of creative and artistic genius and renown. An investor with a six-pack of Rolexes on his wrist? That just doesn't do anything for me. A gigantic house, a luxury car? I wouldn't know what to do with them except sell them and give the money to charity.

I know that many people do sincerely yearn for business success. When I was a kid in junior high school I had a pleasant but nerdy friend named Bill Merrell who carried a briefcase and declared that he would someday be president of General Motors, Chrysler or Ford. (I don't think he ever made it, but I bet he did his best.) Me, I was born and raised a happy bohemian. I sat in class next to Bill Merrell and dreamed of writing a rock opera (who am I kidding? I wrote an entire rock opera in my head in 7th and 8th grade, and I still remember all the songs). I wouldn't enjoy the lifestyle of a corporate CEO. I don't want to wear those clothes, I don't want to drive that car, I don't want to live in that house. But it would mean the world to me if I could write a novel that millions of people would want to read, if I could invent a new way to play electric guitar like Eddie Van Halen once did, if I could just once do a hot sixteen on a track with Jay-Z and Kanye West at a recording studio instead of a karaoke booth. And I'm also often happy -- happy to have a good marriage, a loving healthy family, an exciting if frustrating career, a crazy website, lots of amazing friends. This is the only kind of success I would ever yearn for.

I suspect that a similar difference in dreams often (though surely not always) divides one brand of Republicans/conservatives from one brand of Democrats/liberals. Fellow economic progressives and left-wingers that I talk to often express strongly arts-oriented value systems like mine. Others envy great athletes or great scientists. Some have ambitions on a smaller human scale: they wish to be great doctors, great teachers, great lovers, great parents. But I don't think most people I know yearn for great financial or business success at all. We'd be happy to enjoy this success if it came our way, but it's not part of our value system, and attaining it wouldn't thrill us to the marrow.

This is an important point because many conservatives really believe that wealth envy drives the liberal agenda. We seem to be having a tough national debate about income equality right now, and the word "envy" comes up constantly in this debate. So does the phrase "class warfare", and the question "why do liberals hate the rich?".

This is a core theme, in fact, for the Koch-backed/Wall Street wing of the Republican party, and the theme is going to keep coming up for the next couple of years. Here's 2016 Presidential candidate Marco Rubio in a misty-eyed speech about how his hardworking parents made it in America:

We've never been people that go around and confront people that have been financially successful and say, "We hate you. We envy you because of how well you’re doing."

Here's 2016 Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, strumming the same chords:

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan accused President Barack Obama of capitalizing on voter "fear, envy and anger" in his rhetoric.

"I think he's preying on the emotions of fear, envy and anger,” the Wisconsin Republican said today on NBC's "Meet The Press." "And that is not constructive to unifying America. I think he’s broken his promise as a uniter, and now he's dividing people. And to me, that's very unproductive. That's not who we are in America."

Republicans have criticized the president's push to raise taxes for upper income earners, labeling it "class warfare." Ryan echoed that message today.

"I think this divisive rhetoric is fairly -- is divisive," he said. "I think it's troubling. Sowing class envy and social unrest is not what we do in America."

And, just for nostalgia's sake, here's 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney also saying the same thing:

Romney has accused President Obama of promoting the "bitter politics of envy." The president is ramping up his talks about the nation's growing income divide and the shrinking of the middle class. He is focusing on the tax benefits afforded to millionaires and executives.

Romney, who is one of those millionaires, is taking a different path. He says he's distancing himself from what he calls "a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach."

Rubio and Ryan and Romney are not pretending to believe that economic liberals and progressives envy and hate the rich. They really believe it. So do other economic conservatives I've spoken to. They really do not understand the wide variety of personal ambitions that drive typical Americans. They really don't know who we are.

When Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney hears that a liberal voter wishes for a more equitable and fair distribution of wealth because we think this would improve our society and our lives, they really do not know that this voter is speaking from the heart. When they hear that we'd like to raise taxes on the wealthy because, well, the wealthy helped squander the money that put our country in debt, and so we need them to help pay it off, they can't take this equation on face value. They think it's all a cover for envy and class hatred. This lack of basic understanding is deeply felt, and it seems to be at the core of our divisive current political debate.

Money, taxation, wealth: these are heavy, emotionally-charged topics that subconsciously drive many of our allegedly rational policy debates. Do the math? Sure, but let's also do the psychology. Understanding each other's personal motivations better is a necessary first step towards finding a compromise that can solve our nation's economic problems. When I hear a rich person reveal his belief that everybody envies him, I only want to say this: I'll respect your dream if you'll respect mine.

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Why do the super-rich flatter themselves that we envy them? I don't think we do.

view /WealthAndEnvy
Saturday, February 1, 2014 11:33 am
A Rolex watch
Story
Levi Asher

Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:

I arrived at the Pantheon offices with a great deal of anticipation. These were housed in the triangular skyscraper known as the Little Flatiron Building at Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. My father's office used to be at the prow of the ship-like edifice and had been kept empty in his homage for many years after his death. The building was shabby, and most of it was occupied by manufacturers, including the premises of an accordion maker and various garment firms. But it was also the site of a number of the country's most interesting publishing houses: New Directions, Pellegrini, and Cuddahy shared our floor, as did the left-wing journal the 'Nation' and the Marxist 'Monthly Review'.

Since the Wolffs' departure, the firm was bring run by the people who had previously been in charge of production and sales -- well-intentioned and agreeable men who, however, lacked the editorial skills necessary to maintain the level of books for which the list had become known and that Random expected it to continue publishing …

It strikes me now as an extraordinary display of confidence, as well as an indication of how comfortable the Random bosses were in their own roles, that never once was I prevented from taking on any of the many initially unprofitable titles that we published. The closest I remember getting to being reproached was an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow when I confessed to Donald [Klopfer] that I had not yet read the new Mary Renault. (Her historical novels were among the most profitable books we had inherited from the old Pantheon but very far from my own interest.)

As a result of this ideal situation, we were able to spend our time looking for the books that seemed to us to matter the most. We were not so naive as to fail to realize that an occasional best-seller would help, and we spent a great deal of our time on the few promising titles that had been left to us. Thanks to the Wolffs, we were able, in our first year, to publish 'The Tin Drum' by Gunter Grass, an author who would be awarded the Nobel nearly forty years later. When we presented the book to our sales people, Bennett [Cerf], who had read the manuscript, was concerned by some of the sexual episodes it contained and expressed his doubts. (Amusingly enough, he did so after asking the only woman in the room to absent herself, lest she be embarrassed by the discussion that was to follow -- an indication of the puritanism of those in publishing at the time.) We persuaded Bennett without much difficulty that the manuscript should retain intact …

Nineteen Sixty-Two, the year we started, was not an opportune one for thoughtful, inventive publishing. Even though the McCarthy era had finally ended in 1954, the effects of the years of purging were still powerful. American intellectual life was devastated in this period.

… In my first months at Pantheon, I suggested publishing the work of I. F. Stone, the left-wing journalist who was one of the few to speak out against the folly of the McCarthy period. In later years Stone was recognized as a major influence on American journalism, the mentor to a generation of writers and critics. But when I presented Stone's book, the people at Pantheon who had hired me responded by looking uncomfortable and making excuses about why we could never take on anything so controversial.

Ahh, the joys of the publishing memoir! The classic texts are by Andre Schiffrin, Michael Korda, Bob Epstein -- and the pleasures are always found in the details of the literary discoveries, the tales of the tough cases worth going to bat for, the descriptions of the often shabby and unremarkable physical spaces in which major editorial decisions are made. (Note: after first reading this book years ago and then skimming it again to select a passage to quote here, I was still under the mistaken impression that Schiffrin's Pantheon office was in the Flatiron Building. It was only when I slowed down my reading enough to type in the above passage that I realized it was in plain print that the building was not the Flatiron Building but rather the so-called Little Flatiron Building at the intersection of Fourth Street, Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street. Yes, it's all about the details, and yes, I am a terrible reader.)

When a legendary editor dies, it's tempting to bemoan the current state of the literature business and declare that the era of greatness is now completely over and dead. But I happened to have just begun reading a new editorial memoir called My Mistake by Daniel Menaker when I heard the news about Andre Schiffrin.

Daniel Menaker began his long career as a fact-checker and then copy editor at the New Yorker, and eventually became editor-in-chief at Random House, now a much different company than the one Andre Schiffrin now. His voice is more intimate and less angry than Schiffrin's, which might reveal something about the literary evolution of the memoir, but more likely simply reflects the different personalities of the two editors. His observations are artful and pithy:

Centrello takes me to lunch and let's me know that she would like me to step aside as Editor in Chief. Why? Numbers, evidently. Prizes -- lack thereof. My high salary. It comes back to me that Harry Evans, when he hired me, said "You have five years to fook oop," and I have barely finished four years.

Here, he's having a "typical" phone conversation with an agent about a new book by an author with a middling track record:

ME: How many copies did it sell last year?
AGENT: Fifteen thousand.
ME: Fifteen thousand as in twelve thousand five hundred?
AGENT: Yeah, about that. Twelve thousand five hundred.
ME: Twelve thousand five hundred as in eleven?
AGENT: Twelve-five as in twelve.
ME: So it sold about eleven-five?
AGENT: Yeah.

Or, he steps back with a quick realization:

I sometimes think that many books at all houses are more nearly privished than published.

Why do so few editors ever publish their memoirs? (It's a good bet that many editorial memoirs have been written but never published, because this is a business that thrives on confidentiality.) Menaker was apparently inspired by a bout with cancer. A few other ghosts from his past show up in his book, along with cameos by Steven Pinker, George Saunders, Pauline Kael, Roger Angell, Alice Munro. These names don't quite compare to the impressive names in Andre Schiffrin's memoir -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Eduardo Galeano, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, James McPherson -- but perhaps time will smooth out the difference. It's the same world of book publishing, a world still totally alive, and the editor's side of the story is a side we don't get to enjoy often enough.

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Excerpts from two publishing memoirs, 'The Business of Books' by the late Andre Schiffrin, and 'My Mistake' by Daniel Menaker.

view /SchiffrinMenaker
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 06:08 pm
Two memoirs by celebrated literary editors
Story
Levi Asher

As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City's "new media" industry from 1993 to 2003. I've often wondered if I would ever write an update.

I might someday, and I might even write about the work I've been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia's tech corridor.

I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won't be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it's been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration's website Healthcare.gov, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.

The website's crash has embarrassed this region's entire tech community, especially since a few uninformed commentators have speculated that DC/Northern Virginia doesn't have the tech skills to build a high-capacity website, and that Obama ought to jet in a team of Silicon Valley hotshots to fix Healthcare.gov.

This is really off base, especially since we build and operate plenty of high capacity websites down here. Let's see, there was this little outfit called America Online that handled a bit of traffic out in Fairfax. There's the Pentagon and the FBI and the CIA and the Library of Congress -- a couple of demanding customers in town. We have TCP-IP guru Vinton Cerf working in the local Google office in Reston … so, yeah, I think we know a little bit about how to operate high capacity websites down here in DC/NoVa.

So why has Healthcare.gov been such an epic failure? Well, first, they didn't build the site with open source Drupal software. Terrible decision. Drupal is the most popular web publishing software in the federal government community. (In fact, I only learned Drupal myself in 2009 because it was required at the first job I got after moving down here).

Drupal is free and open source, and it's a very common choice for new federal government websites. It's also particularly great for custom user account functionality, which is what Healthcare.gov is all about. So I really can't understand why the architects of Healthcare.gov decided to go outside the obvious open source software choice for their website. Probably some executive was trying to "think outside the box".

Or maybe they didn't want to use free/open source software at all. When I first heard about the healthcare.gov debacle, I didn't comprehend the dimensions of the project, and I felt confused why CGI Federal couldn't have built and tested the website correctly. Then I heard the shocking news that the government paid CGI Federal around $90 million dollars to build the website, and then I understood the problem. If they had only paid $5 million dollars, the website would used open source software, and it would have worked. But if you pay $90 million dollars, the big shot wheeler-dealers and corporate snakes get involved, and the money starts to become more important than the website. A gigantic budget can really be fatal to a software project (this was the same lesson I learned while working for Time Warner, as discussed in my Silicon Alley memoir above …)

Because I've worked in many industries from media to finance to government, I also don't buy the idea that the federal government is any worse at running a website than any other high-flying business sector. We're all terrible at it, and every website launch ever since the beginning of time (okay, the beginning of 1995) has been a stumbling mess. The crashes just don't usually get this kind of attention.

Especially at the lofty levels when big money gets involved, the federal government's tech bureaucracy is exactly like Silicon Valley's or Wall Street's or Madison Avenue's. I'm there, and I see it. It's always the same cast of characters, the same ecosystem, the same bloated egos in the boardrooms, the same servile obsequiousness in middle management, the same Aspergers syndrome in the cubicles.

I am writing this blog post on November 26, four days before Barack Obama's self-imposed deadline of November 30 for the newly fixed Healthcare.gov. In all seriousness, I pray that the website will stop crashing -- and I know that far more than my local Northern Virginia techie pride is at stake. The success of health insurance reform in the USA is also at stake, and that's a success we really need -- for our health.

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A DC/Northern Virginia techie's thoughts about the crashes of Healthcare.gov ...

view /NotesFromDotGovLand
Tuesday, November 26, 2013 09:14 am
An office building in Washington DC
Story
Levi Asher

Every once in a while, a pacifist blogger gets to yell "stop the presses".

There was a Philosophy Weekend blog post all ready to go up this morning -- till I heard that the United States of America, Britain, China, Russia, Germany, France and Iran have suddenly reached a preliminary peace agreement that will turn back Iran's path towards nuclear escalation. This is very good news.

The CNN article above is headlined "3-decade gridlock broken: The nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva". Actually, this peace treaty ends not three but six decades of bad karma between the USA and Iran. It was sixty years ago, in August 1953, that agents of the USA's newly powerful Central Intelligence Agency led by Kermit Roosevelt successfully schemed to overthrow Iran's democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossaddegh and replace him with a royalist tyrant, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who promised to allow American and European powers (primarily Great Britain) to continue to control Iran's oil exports.

Mossaddegh was a moderate and noble popular leader who seemed to be steering his country towards greater freedom and self-reliance. Most significantly, he had been fairly elected by the Iranian people. The CIA-led overthrow was probably the most blatantly shameful and immoral act of foreign intervention in my country's recent history, and of course it led to an intensely hostile relationship between the USA and Iran.

The history of the USA's bad relationship with Iran is undisputed and widely known in Iran, but few Americans know about the roots of our conflict with Iran. Today's news of a peace agreement may be met with confusion and disinformation by shallow journalists and commentators who don't know much about history, and I suggest that anyone who wants to understand the big picture behind this peace agreement read an excellent book by Stephen Kinzer called All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The history of this 1953 overthrow reads like a conspiracy theorist's bad fantasy, but it's all undisputed fact, and the only reason the story isn't widely known in my country is that the truth still makes us uncomfortable.

With this morning's news of a historic peace agreement, it appears that a pattern of increasing mutual hatred and diplomatic isolation rooted in sixty years of bad karma has finally been broken. I've been blogging about the hopeful outlook for pacifism in my Philosophy Weekend posts for years. When an outbreak of good news like this suddenly hits, it feels like philosophy is merging with history, in the sense that we are seeing wisdom in action. With blatant optimism, I'm changing Philosophy Weekend to History Weekend for the day.

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Every once in a while, a pacifist blogger gets to yell "stop the presses" ...

view /SixtyYearsOfBadKarma
Sunday, November 24, 2013 07:53 am
All the Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer
Story
Levi Asher

Slovenian philosopher and Litkicks favorite Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging this protest in a Moscow cathedral:

The letters have now been widely published, and are well worth reading for their vivid energy as well as for the stark questions they raise about the outlook for economic justice around the world. Here's Zizek to Tolokonnikova:

In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.

No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don't know, and you don't pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don't know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.

Then, Tolokonnikova to Zizek:

I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.

Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche's definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: "This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath."

Hegel, Nietzsche and Heraclitus, all in the first few paragraphs! These are refreshingly intelligent letters, and their fast spread around the Internet is as refreshing as that of Russell Brand's popular message about the world's problems a couple of weeks ago.

Some people consider Slavoj Zizek a publicity-hungry fraud, but the eagerness with which he reaches out to discuss world economic problems with a punk singer in jail shows that he knows how to begin conversations that will engage listeners, which should be at least one big part of a philosopher's job description. His characteristic humility in these letters is gratifying, as when he accuses himself of being a male chauvinist for characterizing his academic philosophical theorizing as different from hers.

Some people likewise consider Pussy Riot a talentless band, though I have heard a few of their songs and think they're fairly pleasant to listen to, certainly in the same league as many anarchist punk bands around the world. They seem to be following the playbook that activist/Situationist Malcolm McLaren once had in mind for his Sex Pistols, though the Pistols themselves refused to play along and broke up after a single album. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's conversation with Zizek seems to indicate that Pussy Riot will have greater staying power.

I loved reading these letters, though I don't necessarily think that either the rambunctious philosopher or the jailed rocker have found the right path towards economic justice. I will always be skeptical of any attempt at an economic revolution that is not thoroughly pacifist in nature. I do not believe an economic revolution can succeed in a militarized world, which is why I think a revolution of world peace is the revolution we most need to have.

Zizek asks:

What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?

Tolokonnikova does not have an answer, but she sure is good at stating the problem:

... here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin's oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn't this a social system that has seized up? Isn't this a feudal system?

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Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging a protest in a Moscow cathedral.

view /NadezhdaTolokonnikova
Sunday, November 17, 2013 11:31 am
Nadezhda Tolonnikova of Pussy Riot imprisoned while on trial
Story
Levi Asher

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?

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What is the philosophical meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?

view /AlienationInAmerica
Sunday, November 10, 2013 08:41 am
Word cloud showing terms used by Republican voters to describe Barack Obama
Story
Levi Asher