Monthly Archives: July 2013

Puritans, 300 Years Later

Even though the Puritans ceased to function as an intact religious body around 1700, their rules of conduct and value judgments remain alive and well to this very day.

Laziness – nothing offended a Puritan more. Man was sent here to work. Lazy bums drove him up a wall. Poor Richard, Ben Franklin’s secular Puritan, warned, “Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him.” He pointed out to those sitting on their duff,  “None preaches better than the ant, and she says nothing.”

Of course, there is the outrageous fact that lazy bums pay no attention to these warnings and instructions. They expect others to do the work. “Let those busy ants pick up the slack.” There is never a shortage of these useless creatures. They keep on coming. Sometimes they show up as Welfare Queens, grandly touring the neighborhood in a Cadillac, a clunker made possible by government assistance. Puritan George Herbert Bush outed them. Some find themselves the nearest hammock, rocking back and forth the livelong day. 30% of the population opts for the hammock every time. It’s their nature. Go ask Puritan Paul Ryan. Then there’s the problem of food stamps. Puritan Jeff Sessions hollered on the Senate floor that food stamps are a slippery slope. “Next thing you know,” he thundered, “the government will be expected to buy ‘their’ clothes and shoes.” As for unemployment insurance, “Please, there has to be a cut off date. Keeping folks on the dole corrupts character. They’d rather collect a smaller check for doing nothing than putting in a hard days work for a few bucks more.” Check out unemployment insurance with the Republican Senators, a moral posse of  enough Puritans to overbook the Mayflower.

Virtue – Puritans didn’t work for nothing. They worked to accumulate  goodies. Yankee toughness. Yankee ingenuity. The Protestant work ethic. Puritans went full-steam after the material things of the world, provided they obtained them without becoming worldly.  How to traffic in the hustle and bustle of commerce while remaining virtuous, that was the problem. “He is ill-clothed who is bare of virtue.” A virtuous man exercised diligence, counseled patience, and, above all, valued thrift. Nothing pleases the Lord more than saving one’s money. “Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on.”

House Republicans, thrifty Puritans all, cry out with one voice, “Stop the spending! “Never mind that austerity worsens the plight of nations suffering an economic depression. As Bruce Bartlett discovered with his Republican cohorts, ideology trumps facts. “Stop the spending. We don’t care what a rag like the New York Times says, the debt and the deficit are the problem, not impoverished kids. No, not the infrastructure, not education, not science, not clean energy. For heaven’s sake – for the sake of heaven, we will stop the spending if it means shutting down the entire government.”

“But virtue, as it never will be moved,

Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven…..

“I have a question for you, Ghost of Hamlet. What happens when virtue shows itself as a shape of heaven? What shape does lewdness now assume?”

 

Conservatism as an Ideology

In 2003, as noted in my last post, the American Psychological Association published a meta-analysis of 88 separate samples from studies conducted over the last half-century on political conservatism – studies from 12 countries and involving, overall, nearly 23,000 individuals.“Synthesizing it all,” the study concluded, “conservatism as an ideology most centrally emphasized resistance to change and the rationalization of inequality.”

Conservatism as an ideology owes its beginnings – and this may surprise you- to the Puritans, way back in the 17th and 18th centuries.These indefatigable, industrious folks were all for mammon, but the accumulation of worldly goods was sanctified by the exercise of virtue, which, like Joseph’s coat, was of many colors – thrift, prudence,honesty, gratitude, – moral achievements derived from godliness. The Puritans valued the material goodies earth had to offer, blessings, in fact, there for the taking if one labored honorably according to the commands of the Lord. A virtuous work ethic was a marriage made in heaven.

(Politically, the Western world had progressed from the Magna Carta in 1215 A.D. to the American Bill of Rights and the French Revolution in the 1790s. Recognition of The Right and The Left as a fundamental division in every political organization began in this decade.)

At the same time, the Puritan doctrine of conjoining virtue with work, spelled out on religious grounds, underwent a secularization. In 1776, Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations. He recognized that labor, with or without virtue, played the central role in economic life. He wrote, “Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased.” On the American side of the Atlantic, thinkers like Benjamin Franklin were promulgating what became known as the Protestant work ethic. Poor Richard’s Almanac warned that “Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him.” For all his touted agnosticism, Ben insisted that “God helps those who help themselves.”

For the next century, the demands of settling a new continent spoke loud and clear. Only hard work tames a wilderness. No need to preach the Protestant work ethic.However, hiding in the bushes, lurked an unexamined aspect of Puritan theology linking virtue and work. (I am ignoring the problem of slavery.) This did not muddy the waters until the last half of the 20th century. That’s when a tremendous change occurred in the Protestant work ethic, and, as we shall see – as Bruce Bartlett saw – has its malignant roots in the Puritans.

Nothing has had a greater impact in a destructive way on the ideology of the conservatives than Puritan theology. I will begin an exegesis in my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tua culpa

– Tua culpa! Tua culpa! Tua culpa!

“They believe they are just disciplining me, hoping I will admit error and ask for forgiveness.”

– Yes, brother Bartlett. You have sinned. Tua culpa! We offer to forgive and forget. All you need  provide is a mea culpa.  It’s a tradition of our party.”

How do eyes blind to anything Bartlett has written or deaf to anything he has said have perfect aim when firing at his conscience? Where are tua culpas, inexhaustible projectiles, manufactured? in what furnace are these moral packets made harder than tempered steel?

Chris Mooney reports that in 2003, the American Psychological Association “presented a meta-analysis of 88 separate samples from studies conducted over the last half-century on political conservatism – studies from 12 countries and involving, overall, nearly 23,000 individuals.” A variety of psychological traits was statistically linked: dogmatism, an intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, less openness to new experiences and more need for closure. “Synthesizing it all,” the study concluded, “conservatism as an ideology most centrally emphasized resistance to change and the rationalization of inequality.”

What about the conclusion that conservatism as an ideology most centrally rationalizes inequality? If true, how do they pull it off? What about the Golden Rule? or the command to Love thy neighbor as thyself? How do Republicans rationalize inequality with the Sermon on the Mount ringing in their ears? How do they in good conscience deny food stamps, cut off unemployment insurance, let the air out of wheels bringing meals, keep minimum wage below the poverty level? The answer, I will submit, goes a long ways to explicating the deep structure of The Right. And, by way of contrast, the logical structure of The Left.

Beyond Epistemic Closure

My Republican hero, Bruce Bartlett, as noted in previous posts, was flabbergasted how closed the right-wing mind had become. “Conservatives,” he observed, “were living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.” The Right, brother Bruce discovered to his dismay, turned a blind eye and deaf ear on any evidence that challenged its dogma. This state of mindlessness lugs the fancy title of “epistemic closure.”

William Blake described common sense(s) as the “doors of perception.” Slamming them shut is bad enough if one wants to live in the real world. Astonishingly, it’s the lesser of two evils. There are bigger problems than epistemic closure. Let me explain. When a schizophrenic hears voices, he has turned the world upside down. Instead of ears streaming information to him, he commandeers them in a grand reversal. He cobbles together his own sound system, an invention of his illness.l He doesn’t register reality, so he can’t adapt to it. What are the voices telling him? Nothing. It’s all made up, not in a creative way but a hodgepodge “signifying nothing.”

After he had lost every last friend on the Right, some passing him by in silence at the supermarket or crossing the street when they saw him coming, Bartlett makes a critical conjecture about the Right that is fundamental to understanding its deep structure. “I think they believe they are just disciplining me, hoping I will admit error and ask for forgiveness.”

I picture in my mind a beam of light consisting of packets of photons pummeling him. Of course, photons have no mass and thus in no condition to pummel anybody. But now, instead of photons, Bartlett’s friends assemble tiny packets, inscribed in ecclesiastical Latin, TUA CULPA, which they stream tirelessly towards him. The mass of these moral packets is problematic. Even for a battle scarred warrior like Bartlett, the packets carry some weight.. More than a nuisance, I would guess. In the case of Judas Iscariot, the endless bombardment of tua culpas accumulated enough mass to plunge him into hell.

Who assembles tua culpas? by what authority? What gives them their projective power? Are they fundamentally meaningless like voices and hallucinations, or fundamental to understanding the Right? The problem is deeper than epistemic closure.

 

Trayvon and Senator Ted Cruz

My mentor, Wilfred Bion, wrote a neglected masterpiece, Experience in Groups.He was a genius, so when he did group therapy, he recognized the obvious: observe the group, not individuals in the group. That’s the dumb way us ordinary workers carried on group work. Not Wilfred. He let the group to its own devices, and, Buddha like, waited patiently. His customers were not happy.

“You haven’t said anything. How is that supposed to help us?”

“I even bought some of your books.”

“I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but the cat got your tongue?”

And so forth. You get the picture. And then, by and by, Wilfred made a stunning discovery. Invariably, the leaderless group got taken over by its craziest member, grandiose, bullying, arrogant, omnipotent – in short, a menace to civilization. Like Juror B 37 in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, the one negotiating a book deal, the one who claims the unarmed 17-year-old teenager “played a huge role in his death,” the one who feels sorry for George. Four of the other five jurors quickly  put out a statement distancing themselves from her remarks. Too late.

Here’s my theory: initially, when the jury convened, one voted for murder in the second degree, two voted for manslaughter, three voted not guilty. 16 working hours later, B 37, now in command, marched the group to a unanimous Not Guilty verdict.With the group disassembled, back in their own minds, the four jurors surveyed the wreckage. They pleaded for privacy and with good reason. They don’t know what hit them, and Wilfred’s book is out of print.

B 37 carried out her take-over behind closed doors. You can watch another crazy, Sen. Ted Cruz, lacking only a Sieg Heil or two, lay siege to the U.S. Senate. (His ruthless bullying and threatening thunder are best on display in committee hearings.) You might say, “Well, Cruz is up against the Senate. We’re not talking the Great Unwashed.”

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever noticed the remarkable facial resemblance between Sen. Cruz and Sen. Joe McCarthy? Check it out sometime.

Happy Insanity

My Republican hero, Bruce Bartlett, found himself “at ground zero in the saga of Republicans closing their eyes to any facts that conflict with their dogma. Rather than listen to me, they threw me under a bus.” Bravely, he crawled out and carried on like a Jeremiah, unhappily, sanely, railing against the political sins of his people and their corrupt leadership. Through it all, Brother Bruce stayed with his group!

What about the state of mind of the happily insane? how did they end up with peaches and cream?

THEY CLOSED THEIR EYES TO FACTS.

The poet writes,

Violets, when sweet odors sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

That’s what the senses do. They quicken eyes and ears, taste buds and touch. Our relationship to facts is a product of our common sense(s). They inform us about the real world. Without them, we would be as lost as Helen Keller before the sense of touch “opened” her eyes and ears. Of course, there is no guarantee that the news from “out there” is to our liking. It may in fact be terrifying or confusing. A rag like the New York Times is nothing but trouble. A polemical article gets under one’s skin. Hell, the world is too complicated to sort out. So the happily insane pull off a remarkable switch: they disregard the input.They join the race’s unceasing migration to La-la land, “where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.”

If they see from afar that Bartlett fellow heading their way, they turn aside. If they hear him jabbering in an article, they shut their ears. In every way possible, they war against the quickening powers of common sense streaming information from factual reality.But that’s not the half of it. Sure, muddying or avoiding information, a specialty of the happily insane, is bad enough. However, they have other fish to fry. Bartlett recognizes the danger, “I think they believe they are just disciplining me, hoping I will admit error and ask for forgiveness.”

And thereby hangs our tale.

An Unhappy Sanity

My Republican hero, Bruce Bartlett, opted for Unhappy Sanity. His fellow conservatives opted for Happy Insanity, living in a bubble “where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.”

For 30 years, Bartlett had practiced politics on the Right.  Happily. He had worked in Reagan’s White House, trumpeting supply-side economics. He got hired by Republican think tanks, wrote for the Wall Street Journal, got national recognition. What makes his story so valuable is the agony he experienced when he criticized his group and, predictably, was quickly treated as an enemy. A group does not tolerate dissent. It closes ranks, as Darwin observed. It has no tolerance for the individual thinker. His group could care less that a valued member was experiencing an intellectual crisis. “What is this reality-based nuisance? An unnecessary disturbance, that’s what.”

Membership in a group is a two-dimensional relationship, to its doctrine and to its leadership. Bartlett’s ” intellectual crisis” began in 2003 when Bush and fellow conservatives abandoned the principles of The Right, betraying their doctrinal tenets. “An expansion of Medicare to pay for prescription drugs for seniors was under discussion. I thought this was a dreadful idea since Medicare was already broke. I was shocked beyond belief when it turned out that Bush really wanted a massive, budget busting new entitlement program.” Doctrinal issues are always explosive in a group,

Bartlett then found himself at war with the leadership. “My utter disdain for Bush grew. I came to totally despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance, and general cluelessness. I lost any respect for conservatives who continued to glorify Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and as a man they would gladly follow to the gates of hell. This was either gross, willful ignorance or total insanity.”

For his apostasy, Bartlett got knocked from pillar to post. Publishers read him the riot act. He was banned from Fox. He was no longer quoted in the Wall Street Journal. He lost every last friend he had on The Right. Bartlett then makes a profound observation, the key to understanding what differentiates The Right from The Left, which is our quest.

“They believe they are just disciplining me, hoping I will admit error and ask for forgiveness.”

In the next post, I will examine the mindset of those who choose Happy Insanity. My hero, Republican Bruce Bartlett, chose the road less traveled, Unhappy Sanity.

 

An Heroic Republican

What’s tougher than admitting you’re wrong? that the centerpiece of your belief system, as much a part of you as your name, is fatally flawed? Now make it really tough. After half a lifetime of doing battle with oppositional bastards, acknowledge publicly they had it right.

Republican Bruce Bartlett pulled it off. “I had viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy. For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman.” I surrender! – an heroic achievement! Remember, belief systems are realized physically in our flesh. They are packed with explosive emotions deep down in our marrow. They’re us.

And when beliefs go political, whether to The Right or to The Left, emotions get dosed with steroids. Just ask Bartlett! He discovered if you want to go from Right to Left or Left to Right, you’re asking for nothing but trouble. First you have the battle with your own conscience, and then the mob comes after you. “I lost every last friend I had on the Right. Some have been known to pass me in silence at the supermarket or even to cross the street when they see me coming, people who were close to me as brothers and sisters.”

And who is closer than siblings? The Group!

Politics is the pulsing heart of group life, so no surprise it kindles emotional firestorms. These easily override facts. Sneering, Bartlett’s group recognized he had gone over to the “reality-based community,” threatening the authority of the group. Scared the hell out of them. “Who does he think he is?  We decide what’s true.” A Group has only one interest in mind, and that is obedience. Darwin observed, “Obedience is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.” Brother Bartlett would be a likely candidate for the Stake 300 years ago.

As the saying goes, “You can get the boy out of the country, but you can’t get the country out of the boy.” And you can’t get The Right or The Left out of us groupies. Bartlett’s journey was not a Come-to-Jesus moment. It went on for decades. He wrote essays and books and articles on economics, by definition a group activity. If anybody took political life seriously, it was brother Bruce. For his pains, his group kicked him to the edge of exile, minimizing any contact with him.  Isolated and abandoned, dread overtook him. “Listen to me! Don’t you know I never left the Group, that I labored from within our band of brothers and sisters. You should appreciate what I have done, not treat me like I don’t exist. Please, don’t turn aside. I would never leave you in a 1000 years. Honest to God, I am not a traitor. You must believe me. I could never turn into a Democrat or a liberal.”

 

A Pause from Politics

David Hockney, the British painter, made the revelatory observation, “The Now is eternal.” The philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, reports a conversation with Einstein: “Once Einstein said that the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation.”

Lee Smolin, a well-known physicist, insists that for “cosmology to progress, physics must abandon the idea that laws are timeless and eternal and embrace instead the idea that they evolved in a real-time.” (He got this primarily from Charles Sanders Peirce.)This includes mathematical objects and laws of logic which are not timeless and eternal. They have evolved. Otherwise, Smolin insists, an essential aspect of our experience of the world – its presentation to us as a succession of present moments – is missing from our most successful descriptions of nature.” Every “present moment” is Now. That’s the first dot, The Now. The second dot – consciousness. Philosopher Thomas Nagel observes,  “The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. If physical science leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is.”

The definition of consciousness, as I understand it, is that it is first-person and not third person. Its provenance cannot be traced. It is like nothing else in the cosmos. Many workers insist it will always remain what it now is, a complete mystery. And of course that includes Einstein.

Now to connect the dots. Einstein said The Now is as real as any phenomenon of physics. More precisely, Einstein laments that understanding The Now is beyond the power of science. What depresses him is that he has no doubt of its reality. More than that, it is special to man. If anything should be investigated and sorted through, it’s The Now. Intuitively, he recognizes the genius of physics, so breathtakingly powerful in making sense of the world, is not relevant to the problem. Remarkably, it’s the same conclusion Nagel came to.

Suppose we connect the dots between The Now and consciousness. At first blush, you would think consciousness precedes The Now. That assumes The Now is uniquely human, a product of our awareness. If we’re not on the scene, who or what is registering The Now. Moreover, if we exist in the first person, we can’t do so in past or future. Identifying myself by a personal pronoun can only happen in the present tense. From now until doomsday. I live eternally in Hockney’s Now.

Suppose The Now is not uniquely human. Suppose Time is a physical reality. The laws of logic and physics and mathematics are not eternal, but are subject to evolution. Smolin, while keeping intact the great pillars of modern physics, namely the Standard Model, general relativity, quantum mechanics, wants to reassess them with evolution and real time. (I’m a product of physics 101 and can’t make judgment on Smolin’s work.) Nagel said the phenomenon of consciousness convinced him the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. He is arguing against the prevailing form of naturalism, that is, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension. Nagel calls this “a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense…The human will to believe is inexhaustible.”

Meanwhile, for Nagel and Smolin and Einstein, the present moment is real and should somehow be part of an objective description of reality.

Honest to God!

In my last post, featuring Bruce Bartlett’s thumbnail overview of his political life, we left him swearing by the Almighty that he has not turned traitor to conservative Republicanism. “I am not a liberal or  a Democrat! Honest to God!” He is pleading not to be exiled. When merely a schoolboy didn’t he find a home with Republicans and Richard Nixon? Wasn’t it love at first sight? Didn’t he make important contributions to supply-side economics? His allegiance remains with The Right, absolutely, even though the Party has gone bananas, its members “living in a bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.” You can’t get a better definition of psychosis than that, and yet here  is Bartlett, a world-class intellectual, all but crawling on hands and knees, begging not to be thrown out of The Group.

The Group – The political Right and the political Left aspire to prescriptive authority. Thrashing out – also known as compromising – what each claims is best for the group constitutes politics. What can’t be sufficiently emphasized is that belonging to a group enormously amplifies emotions. Folks turn frequently into fanatics, whether at a sporting event or a political rally. They get more cranked emotionally as citizens than as spouse or parent or sibling or friend or colleague. Darwin observed famously, “The social instincts (including the love of praise and fear of blame) possess greater strength, or have, through long habit, acquired greater strength than the instinct of self-preservation, hunger, lust, vengeance, etc.” Suicide bombers sacrifice themselves for The Group. Irish patriots starved themselves to death, Nathan Hale regretted he had but one life to give to his country. We celebrated the battle of Gettysburg the last few days. 63,000 soldiers died, unflinchingly following group orders. Then of course there is Henry V’s St. Crispin Day’s speech. Shakespeare says it all.

Consider brother Bartlett.He had labored a lifetime for The Right. He had served faithfully at the highest levels of government. He had fought The Left luminaries as the enemy they are. When he had to go along with their thinking, he found it most unpleasant. Annoying, actually. And, for God’s sake, when all is said and done, shout  from the rooftops: it’s unthinkable faithful Bruce would turn into a liberal or democrat. In fact, he couldn’t even if he wanted to. Why? That’s the mystery.