Friday, February 16, 2018

How Our Actions Hurt Ourselves - The Fading of American Humanity

In my previous post, I wrote about the evolution of our society from one which  preached the importance of society and individuals having concern for the welfare of their fellow man and acting accordingly to one in which it’s all about “me.”  Where self-centeredness is the prevalent norm and socially acceptable.  This is damaging our democracy and our sense of social cohesion.

But this self-centeredness does not just impact larger social relationships.  It directly impacts our personal relationships, from friends and colleagues to the most intimate.  And this is destroying the essence of what makes us human … our relationships with others.

To the extent that we still have relationships, they are not deep because there is no real concern for the other.  It is all about “me.”  Everything about the relationship is viewed through that myopic lens.  And because the relationships are not deep, there is no real trust there.

This damages us in two ways.  When we are self-centered we don’t really give of ourselves, even when it seems to us that we are, and so we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to experience true joy when helping others, when offering others joy.  Instead, everything we do is ultimately self-serving or done begrudgingly and there is no joy in that.

The other way it damages us is that with no deep trust in our friends, or even within the confines of our family, we don’t feel the ability to share our deepest concerns and questions with anyone else.  And so those fears and anxieties fester and grow deeper.

The other impact on our personal relationships is that we have fewer of them.  Even though it’s easier now then ever before to respond to a communication from a friend or acquaintance, by just hitting the reply button on an email or a text, it is common now for people to just not bother … unless the receiver feels that they need the sender for something.

I have heard anecdotes from many people that confirm my own personal experience.  This has become a common occurrence.  Even when someone has done something lovely for someone … like sending something they baked or helping them deal with a problem … people just don’t respond.  And if it’s “just” a communication, forget it.  

If you bring this up, people will apologize and say they were too busy or something was going on in their lives.  But that is not true; no one is ever too busy to click “reply” and briefly acknowledge a communication.  No, the reason is an attitude that the person is not needed and so they are not worth even the most minimal effort.  Any sense of common courtesy as well as concern for others has for the most part disappeared from our social interactions.  

In former times, a letter from someone was precious and was always responded to.  One may not have had time during the day because of the necessity of tending to chores or work, but in the evening one could sit quietly and absorb the communication and draft a response.  

Today, our evenings are not a quiet time for reflection or reading.  For most adults, it’s time to “relax” by watching TV or going out drinking with friends or going to see a movie.  Evenings are times to escape reality.  

And today we are so bombarded with communications that we have learned to ignore all except those we must respond to because they impact us in our careers or other important concerns. Much personal email thus gets conflated with junk mail. 

And again, by acting in this way, one not only damages the other person … who feels ignored and bereft of friendship …  but one damages oneself because you become more removed from your humanity, from caring for others, and so you remove a source of joy from your life.  You also estrange yourself from others which you may well come to regret when you are in need of their help.

A friend of mine once said that life is all about human interaction.  Well, if that is what life is truly about, then the quality of most of our lives is worse now than it has ever been, despite all the material and technological advances we have benefited from.

And we wonder why there is such an increased use of addictive drugs and other behavior!  It falls back on societal problems that are acted out through each individual.  Most people are not even aware why they are suffering; they just know they feel bad and so they resort to addictions that push the pain away.  

An individual here and there will by happenstance be exposed to spirituality (as opposed to religion) in one form or another and find the strength and courage to believe in themselves, to love themselves unconditionally, and thus be there for others.  A Buddhist saying is that you can’t be there for others if you are there for yourself first.

The reader may be taken aback by this statement, as I have been writing about the harm of self-centeredness.  But loving yourself unconditionally, being there for yourself, has nothing to do with self-centeredness.  It’s about being in touch with your true self and doing what you need to do spiritually to give yourself peace and happiness.  On the temporal level, selfless also does not mean not acting for one’s own benefit, but rather to not act solely for one’s own benefit, to be aware of the impact one’s actions have on others.

Unfortunately, few individuals in our culture will be exposed to spirituality in any meaningful way.  Therefore the only way out of this downward spiral in which we find ourselves is through leadership. whether political, religious, or popular culture.  People must be given role models for positive human interaction, rather than the role models they have now which are all about self-centeredness.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Our Society in Danger

Recently, two new books that explain the danger the Trump presidency poses to the survival of our democracy have attracted much attention:  Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy, and Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump.  Briefly stated, the first argues that the large polar-opposite groups that have developed in response to Trump have weakened the balanced middle upon which our democracy depends.  The second argues that when a narcissist is in charge, his demands will be mirrored by the people and in part draws on the narcissism already present in the people.  Since narcissism is about demanding acclaim and obedience and refusing to be challenged, while disregarding others, democracy suffers.

Neither book, however, discusses a fundamental change that is occurring in our society that abets both the polarization of increasing numbers of our citizens and the increase in narcissism in the general population.  That change is the evolution from a society that at least preached the ideal of selflessness to one in which self-centeredness is, if not the ideal, certainly the prevalent norm and socially acceptable. 

I would not be so foolish as to claim that at some point in the past the United States, or any country, was one where the concept of selflessness ruled and was the norm in practice.  It is the nature of human development, based is it is on learned insecurity, to provide fertile soil for the self-centeredness of the ego to thrive.  

That said, however, the leadership of this country, both political and religious, has for most of our history sent out a clear message that the ideal was to have concern for our fellow man, to view ourselves as part of a community with citizenship bringing responsibilities as well as rights, to be selfless.  Selfless does not mean to not act for one’s own benefit, but rather to not act solely for one’s own benefit, to be aware of the impact one’s actions have on others.

The Declaration of Independence, our founding document, states that each person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Which means that if you exercise your right in a way which infringes on my right, there’s a problem, and so one must be selfless in the sense I have described.  

The Constitution together with its Amendments in many ways furthers this concept of the rights of all within the context of a community.  Perhaps the most direct expression of responsibility for our fellow citizens is the Income Tax which was authorized by the 16th Amendment.  This Amendment codified the aspect of the American social contract that holds that all citizens are responsible for contributing to the greater good, each according to his/her ability.

Beginning in the early 20th century, during the era of Republican Progressive leadership, government began enacting laws and regulations which basically said that the rich and powerful, namely large corporations, had to include consideration for their workers, their customers, and the general public in the way business was conducted.  It was no longer acceptable to have the sole perspective of making as much money as possible.  Business had a social responsibility; it was part of the American social contract.

One of the most well-known examples of this message of selflessness was JFK’s statement in his Inaugural Address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  This was not, as is sometimes thought, a turning point but a reaffirmation of the highest ideals of our American democracy.

The turning point, however, in the road from selflessness to self-centeredness came with the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  In his campaign, he asked the simple question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago.”  Now people have always, as the saying goes, voted their pocketbook.  But asking this question crystalized all the issues down to one simple thing … how am I doing.

Then came his inaugural pronouncement that “government is not the solution; it is the problem.”  He felt that everyone was quite capable of running their own lives and doing well on their own.

Well, as we know from our past and the past of all civilizations, if you leave it up to the individual, the result will be self-centeredness and a significant proportion of the populace will not do well.  Only the moral authority of religion and government has been able to somewhat curb that tendency and bring people, whether whole-heartedly or begrudgingly, to accept their broader responsibility.

He stated that “we the people” are the solution, not the “elite” who run government.  That, however, was in truth more a criticism of the political parties than the concept of government.  If government is not currently an expression of  “we the people,” or in Lincoln’s terms “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and I totally agree that it is not, the answer is not to tear down government but to reinvigorate it.

In the years since Reagan, the self-centeredness of individuals in our society has only increased.  To a large extent, that increase has been caused by the compulsive use of technology (computers, smartphones, social media) by people and their resulting tendency to not connect with the broader society or even a more immediate one, such as family.

The advent of Donald Trump has brought all these tendencies to a crisis point.  So that the relevant question truly is:  how can our democracy not just survive but thrive again?  The answer is through leadership, political and otherwise, that has moral authority.  The American people are good people, but like all humans their better tendencies need to be fostered rather than their baser instincts.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Wasting Your Hard-Earned Money at McDonalds

It’s lunch time and either your children are clamoring for McDonalds or you want a dependable fast meal.  It used to be that McDonalds was a place to feed yourself and your family cheaply, getting some reasonable nutritional value although accompanied by too much sugar and carbs.

Today I was on the Massachusetts Turnpike and went to a McDonalds in a service area.  I hadn’t been to a McDonalds for several years and when I looked up at the menu board, I couldn’t believe what I saw.  A fish filet meal cost almost $10, and the various burger and chicken options were close to $11.  This is what you would pay for a high quality sandwich at many cafes or a burger, albeit usually without fries.

In 2002, the cost of a Filet-o-Fish sandwich was $1.89.  Today it was over $5.  A Big Mac was $2.39. today it was around $6.  So in the last 15 years, there was an increase of almost 200% for the fish fillet sandwich, and more than 150% for the Big Mac.  

How did that happen?  Given that the cost of ground beef and fish filets in the grocery store have barely increased during that same time, and that the cost of living has increased only 37% during that period, what can account for this huge increase?  

I’d say it was corporate greed, knowing they could get away with it because their consumer would pay what was charged without giving it any thought.  More recently, there have been increased labor costs in certain markets because of an increase in the minimum wage.  These have, of course, been passed on to the consumer.  One certainly couldn’t expect the corporation to eat the increased expense and have profits reduced!  It’s still ultimately corporate greed.

The time has come for the American public to stand up and say, “NO!”  If we’re going to spend this kind of money … a family of 4 could easily spend $40+ for lunch … we’re going to get real, more nutritious, food in a more comfortable environment.  If you're an adult who is eating on the fly, slow down.  Taking some time to breathe while eating is important for your health.

For those of us traveling on the interstates, we really don’t have much choice.  We’re a captive audience because finding a decent place off the road is not easy; most options near interchanges are going to be other fast food options.  So we have to grin and bear it.  But if you’re not traveling the interstates, there is no excuse to spend that much money for the product received.

Monday, December 11, 2017

American Spirit v American Character

Recently I saw two very interesting and seemingly inconsistent interviews.  The one was with David McCullough about his book, The American Spirit.  The other was with Kurt Andersen about his book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.  

McCullough talks about the American spirit in familiar terms.  It is based on the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and those of the Founding Fathers:  equality, fairness, truth.  He spoke of the men who have lead this country as, for the most part, having had a certain gravitas.  They may not have always been wise or even good presidents, but they understood the responsibility, not just the power, of their office.  

A blurb for the books says: “The American Spirit reminds us of core American values to which we all subscribe, regardless of which region we live in, which political party we identify with, or our ethnic background.”  I certainly believe in those core American values and in their importance in guiding our country, witness my book, We STILL Hold These Truths.  However, I would not say that all American’s subscribe to these values.  Hardly.  And that is not just a fact today; it has always been a fact.

That brings me to Andersen’s book.  His argument is that the American character is composed of two very different strains.  On the one hand you have the religious fundamentalists, starting with the Puritans, who were beyond fervent in their often fantastical beliefs and would brooke no disagreement.  To believe was to be right.  As the population spread westward, religion followed often in the form of ministers who were hucksters, making show biz out of religion.

The other strain was formed by those who came to America searching for a pot of gold.  To them it was a land of opportunity, a chance to become rich.  There was no truth for them beyond the quest for money.

In both cases, he argues, fantasy was a core aspect of people’s belief system and character.  And they believed in their own truths.  I don’t know if Andersen makes this point, but I would say that this character is very much a self-centered one in both cases.

McCullough looks at the current political scene as an aberration from our historic spirit.  Andersen looks at it as the logical culmination of our historic character.

They are both right.  How can that be?  The tendencies that Andersen sees in our history have indeed always been there; the evidence is ample.  But for most of our history, the political and media establishment adhered, at least in form, to the higher American spirit.  The quote from John Adams that is inscribed on a mantle in the East Room of the White House says it all: “May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof.”  

And the power and prevalence of that establishment kept the lid on the unruly character of the people.  Even the largest corporations, which until the early 1900s were a law unto themselves, came to be regulated to enforce standards of fairness, equality, and truth.

But the political and social movements of the 60s upended much.  Everyone became entitled to their own truths and authority became suspect.  Watergate reinforced this.  Reagan legitimized this movement with his, “Government is the problem,” and the start of the Me generation.  Then, with cable television and the internet, the avenues for people to both express and listen to their own truths, their own facts, morphed exponentially.  Fantasy and hucksterism became the lifeblood of conservative talk radio.  And that has brought us today to the presidency of Donald Trump.

With pandora’s box opened, will we ever be able to return to a world where the American spirit prevails over the self-centered character of the people?  Painfully, it is hard to imagine.  The judgments and emotions are running so strong

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Exposing the Predator in Chief

In the midst of the tsunami of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a variety of public figures and their resulting fall from power, I kept wondering where is the media’s coverage of the allegations against Donald Trump?

Finally, The Atlantic recently recounted the accusations of each of the nineteen women who have in the past made allegation against Trump. Given that in the Access Hollywood tape he boastingly states that he has committed such assaults in the past … as he put it, “When you’re a star, you can do anything” … he must be held to account, just as the other’s have.

At the time the tape was made public, he did not raise questions about its veracity, but now he says it wasn’t his voice.  And so Billy Bush has come forward and stated that it was Trump who made those statements and that there were 8 witnesses.

Republicans took President Clinton to task for his sexual lapses or predation in the impeachment proceedings.  Donald Trump invited several of Clinton’s accusers to be his guests at the second presidential debate.

Where are the Republicans now when their own leader appears clearly guilty of such misbehavior?  To them everything is political.  They were against raising the deficit when it was part of Obama’s plan to help the economy.  Now that they are in charge, they have no problem with raising the deficit.  They speak against Democrats who have been accused of sexual harassment and call on them to be censured or resign, yet they support Roy Moore in his candidacy for a Senate seat.  

These are more example of Republican hypocrisy.  But the mainstream media cannot be a part of that hypocrisy.  The New York Times and all the major newspapers and media outlets must cover this story in thorough detail, following The Atlantic’s lead.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Is It Justice to Apply Social Standards Retroactively?

We have recently seen a rash of accusations against public figures involving various levels of sexual harassment/assault.  Most have been fired by their employers or Boards.  Only Roy Moore continues to receive unqualified support from both the Alabama Republican Party and his base.

That these acts were committed is beyond disappointing.  To become aware of the extent to which women are subjected to these types of actions, even by respected, upstanding people, both liberal and conservative, is a shock.  

As women have come forward and received a receptive hearing, more women have been empowered and found the courage to come forward with their own stories.  This is a healthy development.   Too long have women feared speaking the truth against men with power over them.  

The question is, what should society, what should organizations/employers do in the face of such accusations.  There is no question that society is quickly developing a new standard as to what is considered acceptable behavior of men towards women.  

While some have always abhorred such behavior, society as a whole has accepted the fact that “men are pigs” and that they do such things.  As long as they didn’t cross the line of criminal sexual assault or the age of consent barrier, society just shrugged its shoulder.

That is clearly no longer the case.  The question is, should people be punished … and firing someone from their job is being punished … for behavior which at the time, while reprehensible, was accepted by society.  Should these standards be applied retroactively?

When laws are passed, they are almost always applied prospectively.  Someone cannot be accused and convicted of a crime when the activity was not a crime at the time it happened.  That is the way the criminal justice system works; that is essential to its fairness.

I think the same standard should be applied here.  If someone’s behavior was either criminal or clearly unacceptable under community standards at the time it occurred, then if the accusation has indicia of truth, the person should be held accountable, punished.  

However, if the behavior was not criminal or unacceptable under contemporary standards, then the new standards should not be applied retroactively.  The person should, however, offer an abject apology and admit that the complained-of behavior occurred. And they should be called on the carpet and told that if this ever happens again they will be fired.

With regard to someone who is up for election, however, such as Roy Moore, it is for the people to decide whether someone with such a history should receive their vote.  A history of sexual harassment or assault is certainly relevant when one is seeking a position of public trust.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Hypocrisy of the New Republicans

I have written often regarding the hypocrisy of what I am calling “New Republicans.”  Republicans used to be conservatives of the old school, the party of business and commerce, and they made no bones about it.  Yes, they felt that such policies would lift up the entire country, but they did not try and sell themselves as the party of the people, the working man.  

The new Republicans, however, and not just President Trump (it started with Reagan), present themselves as the party that has the best interests of the average American, working-class Americans, at heart.  This is pure hypocrisy.  One just has to look at all their actions and policies; it is all about enriching business and commerce. (George W.’s immigration and education policies, which were in line with his pitch of compassionate conservatism, were an aberration.) They still insist that trickle-down economics and deregulation work for the average person despite the proof of past experience that they do not.  

But the new Republicans have entered an even more outrageous area of hypocrisy … moral values.  Prior to George W., Republicans presented themselves as upstanding people and they typically were, but they did not flog everyone with their moral righteousness.  Ever since Evangelicals have taken a firm hold of Republican politics, however, Republicans have cranked up the rhetoric against abortion and gay rights and generally have presented themselves as paragons of Christian virtue and morals.

Yet time and again we find that when it comes to choosing between upholding Christian virtue and morals or achieving their political aims … conservative justices, anti-abortion policy, push back on gay rights … they will look the other way when faced with morally offensive actions of their candidates out of the hope of achieving political victory.  Certainly the candidacy of Donald Trump was and his presidency continues to be a prime example.  

One of the more egregious examples of this behavior regards Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court justice and candidate for the U.S. Senate.  After numerous women came forward and stated publicly that they were harassed or molested by Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, the Alabama Republican establishment has stood solidly behind him.  

The most outrageous statement has come from the Alabama State Auditor who felt there was nothing wrong in what Moore did, saying that after all Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an established carpenter in his 30s. Forgetting about the fact that the story goes that Mary was a virgin, to site a social practice from 2000 years ago to justify actions today is beyond belief.  I guess it would be ok to go back to stoning people to death who are guilty of all sorts of crimes!

Democrats on the other hand have given no slack to liberals who have been accused of harassment in recent times.  Whether it’s Representative Wiener or Harvey Weinstein or Senator Franken or Kevin Spacey, they have all been roundly criticized and Democrats have been supportive of bringing them to justice.  They were not hypocritical, as Republicans accuse, for not calling for President Clinton’s impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Clinton’s actions were in fact roundly deplored by Democrats at the time, but those actions did not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors for which impeachment is appropriate.

It is past time for the “holier than thou” crowd to walk the walk and not just talk to talk.