Comment

Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narratives, the two stories of capitalism and the three languages of politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has been writing about the importance of narratives in our lives and in politics. His general discussion is here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2011/04/narratives-that-guide-our-lives.html. While his application to politics can be found here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2012/10/election-2012-and-clash-of-narratives.html.

Recently I came across Jonathan Haidt's writing on the two stories of capitalism. (He is working on a book on the subject.) In one capitalism oppresses people; this story fuels the narrative of the left. You can hear it in the language of liberals like Elizabeth Warren. It might not be stated so boldly but if you listen closely the message is there: that capitalism thrives by exploiting people and that government liberates us from the handcuffs of inequality foisted upon us by the rich.

The other story, favored by the right, proclaims that capitalism liberates people and that government oppresses by burdening us with rules and regulations. This story resounds especially strong within the libertarian and Tea Party.

I believe there is a third story in line with Arnold Kling's three languages of politics in which some claim capitalism civilizes us and saves us from barbarism. For examples listen to more traditional conservatives such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.

I figure that Haidt would argue that ultimately this story boils down to liberation: capitalism saves us from tribalism and primitivism. Nonetheless, here is Haidt’s explanation of the two stories. I’ve provided several links after these quotes that explain Haidt’s ideas in more detail.
 
There has long been a thoroughly negative story about commerce, going back to biblical times, in which businessmen, traders, and money lenders are bloodsuckers who extort wealth from workers and customers without contributing anything of value. When mercantile capitalism came along in the 16th century, and even more so when industrial capitalism conquered the globe in the 19th century, the negative story began to animate left-leaning parties and revolutionaries in many countries—with history-shaping consequences for the 20th century. This is story #1: Capitalism is exploitation. It is a curse, a virus, a disaster for the poor and the planet. This story is still told today, as we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But capitalism has also had its passionate defenders, most notably Adam Smith in the 18th century, who explained how capitalism achieves the magic of value creation (as in his famous example of a pin factory). The rising wealth, longevity, and living standards of the 19th and 20th centuries—even for the poor and working class—led to the formation of a thoroughly positive story about capitalism, told by economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This is story #2: Capitalism is liberation. Free market capitalism is Prometheus, giving fire and freedom to the human race. In this story, it is left-leaning ideologies (socialism, Marxism, and the affection for big government) that continually attack human progress, disconnecting whole nations from the market and dragging them down into poverty for decades—until they see the light, as China and India did a few decades ago.



 

I mentioned Arnold Kling earlier. There is a lot of overlap between Haidt’s work and Kling’s three languages of politics. Kling argues that the language of the left centers on the oppressed versus oppressors axis. Conservatives argue along the lines of civilization versus barbarism. Libertarians see things in terms of liberty versus coercion. All three groups then will craft different narratives, each with their own favored axis and language.

How does this apply to us? I believe knowing about narratives and the kinds of languages can ultimately help us better communicate our ideas with those who disagree with us.

Jon Stewart: The Archetypical Post-Modern Comedian/Pundit

Jon Stewart’s announcement that he is leaving the The Daily Show after 15 years has received lots of attention. I’ve watched his shows once in a while and find him somewhat amusing. Because of the occasional outages of my cable provider (who shall remain unnamed) my wife and I decided to watch some of his shows for amusement. While I do find him entertaining I also find him aggravating, not so much because of his blatant political agenda but his method. Yet when challenged by critics (yes, he has some) as he was on Chris Wallace’s show Stewart conveniently hides behind the excuse of “Hey, I’m a comedian not a newscaster!” However, just as his show is a fake newscast of sorts so is his defense. For a detailed analysis of one his shows see this article by Kyle Smith, NY Post. (I’ve extracted some noncontiguous comments.)


Though Stewart has often claimed he does a “fake news show,” “The Daily Show” isn’t that. It’s a real news show punctuated with puns, jokes, asides and the occasional moment of staged sanctimony.

Stewart is a journalist: an irresponsible and unprofessional one.

Most other journalists aren’t allowed to swear or to slam powerful figures (lest they be denied chances to interview them in future). Their editors make them tone down their opinions and cloak them behind weasel words like “critics say.” Journalists have to dress up in neutrality drag every day, and it’s a bore.

Yet Stewart uses his funnyman status as a license to dispense with even the most minimal journalistic standards. Get both sides of the story?
Hey, I’m just a comedian, man. Try to be responsible about what the real issues are? Dude, that’s too heavy, we just want to set up the next d- -k joke.

Lest I be accused of picking just an example from the right here is one from the left by Jamelle Bouie, a staff writer for Slate.


For liberals in particular, the idea that government is only hypocrisy and dysfunction is self-defeating and nihilistic.

The natural response to all of this is a version of Stewart’s protest—He’s just a comedian—and a refrain from The Dark Knight: Why so serious? The answer is easy: He’s influential. And for a generation of young liberals, his chief influence has been to make outrage, cynicism, and condescension the language of the left. As a comedian and talk show host, Jon Stewart has been pretty funny. But as a pundit and player in our politics, he’s been a problem.

In a similar vein Bill Maher uses similar ploys although Maher doesn’t try to hide its agenda or hide behind the veil of “I’m only a comedian.” Like Stewart, Maher picks an easy target on the right, finds an inconsistency in what a Republican or conservative politician says in one venue then finds a case where they contradict themselves later. That’s fine. What bothers me more is that find both of them to be intellectually sloppy, lazy or dishonest.

In one show during Maher’s ending monologue/diatribe he labors to prove that the prosperity the middle class enjoyed during the 1950s was due to – are you ready? – socialism! He trots out the GI Bill in which veterans received various benefits like paid college tuition as a primary example. He should check the definition of socialism which is “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” Naturally the adoring audience rewarded Maher with hoots and raucous applause. They miss the fact that his “argument” (such that it is) relies on the misuse of terminology.

Was this an accident? I don’t think so. Maher is a bright guy so I find it hard to believe he doesn’t know what socialism means and that his example would be more accurately be considered some kind of welfarism. I think his mission, like Stewart’s, is to influence those in his main demographic group: 18 – 34 year olds.

Getting back to Stewart in one of his shows he cites a Republican who bemoans the regulations businesses have to bear. Stewart digs out a case where this politician is asked if Starbucks employees should be required by law to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. He says (if I recall correctly) that it should be optional and better handled by the free market. Well, this is fresh fodder for Stewart to show how stupid free market advocates are. To be fair, in another segment he takes on the measles outbreak and quotes a liberal Californian who justifies why she didn’t get her kids vaccinated. Of course, he then trots out NJ governor Chris Christie who says the decision should be the parents’. I won’t get into the argument whether mandatory vaccinations is a valid function of government. What Stewart ignores is the overall effect of regulations on businesses and the economy. By implication and his use of the hand-washing example Stewart leads his viewers to believe that ALL regulations are justified and anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid. He doesn’t come right out and say it. He doesn’t have to.


I read a paper recently that shows that the number of Federal regulations have increased by seven-fold since 1950 and tries to quantify the drag these regulations have had on the economy. I also read an interview recently of someone who works for one of the large financial investment companies on the beneficial effects the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act had on their business. Why? Because smaller institutions or potential start ups don’t have the resources to comply with the new rules and regulations imposed by the act. It has helped this large investment company fend off competition. I wonder what Stewart and Maher think of that? Something I’m sure they supported actually helping a big business thrive. That is the ultimate joke on them and us, isn’t it?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Jay Leno's Unknown Politics

Last week I caught Jay Leno on Bill Maher's show. At one point a panel member said that she couldn't tell what Leno's politics were. He said, "And you never will." He went on to say that he strived to make sure he made fun of both Republicans and Democrats. That's one of the reasons I liked Leno when he was on the air and why I miss him now that he isn't. I also liked that he did something that other comics didn't do. For instance, when he made fun of Obama, Leno hit on Obama's policies like the healthcare web site rollout fiasco, not just his personal foibles.

Why is this noteworthy? Because over the years when I've seen other comics poke fun at Democrats like Bill Clinton or Obama they hit upon mostly their personal quirks, not their policies. Yet when these same comics aim their sights at Republicans they target both the Republican's personalities and their politics. When accused of bias these comics claim they're make fun of both sides. They do but the nature of their poking differs drastically depending on the politics of their targets. (Jon Stewart will take on the policies of Democrats but it seems only when he disagrees with that policy.)

As an aside what I find interesting is that Leno is friendly with a leftist like Maher and with a conservative like Dennis Miller. I'm also not saying that Leno is a closet conservative. He could be a liberal for all I know. I suspect he is. When he had a conservative like Ted Cruz on his show Leno seemed to ask tougher questions than he did of his Democrat guests. At least that's how it seemed to me! Regardless of his true politics I respect his attempt to make fun of both sides.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Where are the conservative social psychologists?

Is the Field of Psychology Biased Against Conservatives? This New Yorker
article starts with:

On January 27, 2011, from a stage in the middle of the San Antonio Convention Center, Jonathan Haidt addressed the participants of the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The topic was an ambitious one: a vision for social psychology in the year 2020. Haidt began by reviewing the field that he is best known for, moral psychology. Then he threw a curveball. He would, he told the gathering of about a thousand social-psychology professors, students, and post-docs, like some audience participation. By a show of hands, how would those present describe their political orientation? First came the liberals: a “sea of hands,” comprising about eighty per cent of the room, Haidt later recalled. Next, the centrists or moderates. Twenty hands. Next, the libertarians. Twelve hands. And last, the conservatives. Three hands.
Social psychology, Haidt went on, had an obvious problem: a lack of political diversity that was every bit as dangerous as a lack of, say, racial or religious or gender diversity. It discouraged conservative students from joining the field, and it discouraged conservative members from pursuing certain lines of argument. It also introduced bias into research questions, methodology, and, ultimately, publications. The topics that social psychologists chose to study and how they chose to study them, he argued, suffered from homogeneity. The effect was limited, Haidt was quick to point out, to areas that concerned political ideology and politicized notions, like race, gender, stereotyping, and power and inequality. “It’s not like the whole field is undercut, but when it comes to research on controversial topics, the effect is most pronounced,” he later told me.

The rest of the article ranges widely over the various studies researchers have conducted on this phenomenon. I recommend it highly as well as the work of Jonathan Haidt. He describes himself as a political liberal when he embarked on the journey to investigate the foundations of morality. Haidt ultimately identifies six foundations:

1. Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
2. Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. (Alternate name: Proportionality)
3. Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
4. Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation. (Alternate name: Ingroup)
5. Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority. (Alternate name: Respect.)
6. Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

This isn’t too controversial. However Haidt stepped on a live rail when he noted that conservatives tend to rely on all six foundations while liberals and libertarians tend to favor only one. Liberals rely on the Care/harm foundation while libertarians gravitate to liberty/oppression. (See his paper: Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations) As you can see Haidt is not afraid to question the status quo! Imagine the horror that someone dares to suggest that conservatives might have a broader moral foundation than liberals, and the conclusion comes from a liberal! (Haidt admits he has drifted
more to the center as a result of his research and thinking.)

Anyway, please check out this article as well as the links to the various studies that are referred to in it. To me Haidt shows the result of truly trying to be objective.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Narratives and The Languages of Politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has written a lot at http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/ on the importance of narrative in today’s politics and that the group that controls the narrative tends to win the debate and elections. I found an interesting ebook by Arnold Kling called The Three Languages of Politics that talks about the kinds of narratives liberals, conservatives and libertarians favor. He claims if you listen carefully liberals, conservatives and libertarians each have a favored language that centers on a different axis. Liberals talk about oppression versus the oppressed. Conservatives talk about civilization vs. barbarism. (I'd say their reference to tradition translates into preserving the collective knowledge that establishes laws and rituals that preserve civilization.) Libertarians focus on freedom versus coercion.

I think Kling is onto something and that it explains the acrimonious, usually unproductive cross talking when people argue.

Kling gives some examples of this in his book and on his blog, http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/. Most recently he predicted how the narrative about the shooting in Ferguson would play out. The media and the left would try to portray Brown as a victim of oppression. The right would say that the ensuing riots show the battle between civilization and barbarism and the need for strong order. Libertarians would decry the use of coercive police force as threatening our freedom.

The more I listen to the different spokesman of the three sides the more I see confirmation of Kling’s model. I'm not saying it applies all of the time but I think he has identified generally valid patterns. He doesn't try to explain why people gravitate to one language, only that they do settle on one language and can’t understand why someone who disagrees with them can’t see the blindingly obvious truth of their position.

The link below has a nice, almost hour long discussion by Paul and Diana Hsieh on the details of this model and some ideas on how to apply them when talking with people who disagree with you. While Paul’s preferred language is in the libertarian axis (as is Kling’s) I believe anyone in the three groups could benefit by giving Paul’s talk a fair hearing.

http://www.philosophyinaction.com/podcasts/2014-07-03.html Here is the general outline of points in the pod cast.

  • About the "three languages of politics"
  • The differences in the three languages
  • The difference that the three languages make
  • Examples of the three languages
  • Conflict between camps
  • Alliances between camps
  • Political argument between camps
  • The debates over the Hobby Lobby decision
  • Using the three languages to become more persuasive
  • Caveats and cautions
  • Three take-home points


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Soccer: The Liberal Sport?

During the recent World Cup Bernie Goldberg published an article Why Liberals Like Soccer More Than Conservatives that repeats the two usual arguments I've heard. One, that soccer is boring because there isn't enough scoring. And, that soccer appeals to liberals because it shows that America isn't as exceptional as some would like to think. To support this he quotes Peter Beinart, a "liberal journalist and professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York" who says that people who like soccer typify "a more cosmopolitan temperament, more of a recognition that America has things to learn from the rest of the world, and in fact maybe we have to learn from the rest of the world if we're going to remain a successful country."

While Goldberg probably is right that liberals tend to like soccer more than conservatives I think he is painting with a brush that is far too wide. He seems to be saying "I don't like something simply because liberals do!" Now that's being objective!

Speaking as more of a libertarian I think there are reasons for liking soccer that can appeal to conservatives too. 

1. In soccer players are free to decide how they're going to play the ball and with their teammates. They have more freedom than some American sports like football and basketball which is heavily controlled and scripted by the coach. 

2. To play well soccer a player needs to have both a high level of skill and tactical awareness since they're literally thinking on their feet with no football or basketball time outs or breaks like innings in baseball.

3. The sport doesn't favor one body type. There have been short soccer stars and tall ones. Some are exceptionally fast while others make up for lack of speed with the ability to fake a defender with their moves. While you could argue that this supports egalitarianism it doesn't mean soccer pushes for equality of results but for equality of opportunity to excel. 

4. Because scoring is very difficult in soccer each goal holds more value. With the offside law scoring requires a highly coordinated, skillful attack that can use powerful shots or delicately placed ones. 

5. If soccer was anti-individualist why are some of its stars such as Beckham, Messi or Ronaldo known around the world and command salaries in the tens of millions of dollars?

John Tierney's article, Soccer, a Beautiful Game of Chance, in the NYT, points out that Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the two primary American sports, have the egalitarianism of equality of outcome inherent in their organizational design. By that he means that both leagues have salary caps to even out the haves from the have nots and that the player drafts in both leagues favor the teams which didn't do well in the previous season. Sounds an awful like Marx's "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs," doesn't it? 

Meanwhile soccer teams in Europe compete to secure the best star players by outbidding each other. And there are no salary caps. In the premier leagues of England and European teams that fall to the bottom of the standings can be relegated to the next lower division while teams that fight their way to the top of the next lower league can be promoted. Being relegated or promoted has huge impact on the finances of the team and the club owing it! Isn't that an example of fierce competition? Where does relegation/promotion happen in America?

The overall story about soccer is much more complicated than Goldberg admits. If soccer really did appeal only to liberals and folks in socialist countries why is it big in relatively free countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Australia as well as socialized countries such as France, Sweden and Italy?

My point is that Goldberg and others like him (such as Ann Coulter) latch onto one point about this sport to further their political agenda without acknowledging there could be other, valid reasons for liking soccer. (Just as Beinart makes the same mistake from the left side.) They grossly oversimplify soccer in the overpowering desire of scoring an easy point (so to speak) by taking an easy but misguided shot.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla: Nature’s Mascot?


I saw the new Godzilla last night with a friend. Both of us went in with high expectations and left disappointed. I felt it was a lumbering mess. As I told my friend it was an example of great special effects in search of a plot. Both of us had issues with what seemed like pointless things the humans were doing.

Then, thanks to a link provided on Watts Up With That, the quote provided below from an interview with the director of Godzilla helps explain what he was trying to delicately say (while indelicately destroying virtual cities). It’s not the plot that’s important. It’s the narrative, something my friend Robert Bidinotto has consistently pointed out: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2011/04/narratives-that-guide-our-lives.html, http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2012/03/meditation-on-progressive-narrative.html, http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2013/11/how-wizard-of-oz-refutes-liberal.html.

Your version of Godzilla seems to be more rooted in current events, and centers on mankind’s tenuous relationship with nature, and the environment.

Yeah. Man vs. Nature is the predominant theme of the film, and I always tried to go back to that imagery. At the beginning when they find the fossils, it was important to me that they didn’t just find them—it was caused by our abuse of the planet. We deserved it, in a way. So there’s this rainforest with a big scar in the landscape with this quarry, slave labor, and a Western company. You have to ask yourself, “What does Godzilla represent?” The thing we kept coming up with is that he’s a force of nature, and if nature had a mascot, it would be Godzilla. So what do the other creatures represent? They represent man’s abuse of nature, and the idea is that Godzilla is coming to restore balance to something mankind has disrupted.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with this message I think many people are oblivious to the fact that even so-called “mindless” monster movies smuggle an embedded message. I think many moviegoers miss the message and just enjoy the CGI-created mayhem. I do think, however, that the constant exposure to these hidden messages eventually leaves their mark on our collective consciousness. Or at least that must be the hope of the moviemakers because they keep doing it!

Getting back to man’s “abuse” of nature I would agree with this message if these movies showed truly unnecessary destruction of nature for no productive purpose (such as someone who dumps toxic waste into a lake instead of having it treated). Instead these critics throw all human uses of natural resources into the same category. In other words they don’t make a distinction between using resources and wasting them. They’re treated as the same. To me when legitimate and illegitimate uses of nature are treated the same the purpose is simply to instill guilt for our very existence.