Humility and Rationality

Humility and Rationality

Humility and Rationality
By Wade Lee Hudson

A review
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 512 Pages

Controlling emotions, instincts, intuitions, and biases is like riding an elephant. As Jonathan Haidt wrote: “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” In his magnum opus, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman sums up decades of research and urges readers to strengthen “slow thinking” to better manage “fast thinking.” Rationality demands discipline, practice, and effort, but over-confident, we often fail. A humble understanding of why and how we don’t always choose the most rational action can help us be better human beings. 

Kahneman argues that humans

often need help to make more accurate judgments and better decisions, and in some cases policies and institutions can provide that help. The assumption that agents are rational provides the intellectual foundation for the libertarian approach to public policy: do not interfere with the individual's right to choose, unless the choices harm others. For behavioral economists, however, freedom has a cost, which is borne by individuals who make bad choices, and by society that feels obligated to help him. The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes, therefore, presents a dilemma.

Whether to require motorcyclists to wear helmets is an example. Requiring everyone to get health insurance is another.

Social-change activists have much to learn from Kahneman’s work, which calls for a commitment to overcome the arrogance that interferes with learning from mistakes. No wonder pride has been considered the number-one sin, and humility the number-one virtue. 

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The Politics of Petulance: A Spirited Defense of “Mature Liberalism”

The Politics of Petulance: A Spirited Defense of “Mature Liberalism”

Wade Lee Hudson

Donald Trump is another Joe McCarthy. So says Alan Wolfe in The Politics of Immaturity: America in an Age of Immaturity. Wolfe’s passionate, eloquent affirmation of “mature liberalism” is not uncritical of post-war liberals who challenged McCarthyism. But Wolfe urges us to remember “what they got right.”

Trump loved McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who was “notoriously malicious” and practised “the dark arts of American politics.” They became close friends and Cohn greatly influenced Trump.  When James Comey and Jeff Sessions frustrated Trump, he famously declared, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” His link to Cohn was more than personal. They shared the same worldview: demagoguery. Trumpism parallels McCarthyism .

Concerning many of the liberals who criticized McCarthyism and the radical right that emerged from it, Wolfe acknowledges:

Their rightful hostility toward the Soviet Union translated itself into a rigid anti-communism that became, for some, an ideology unto itself. Seeing fascism in unexpected places, they exaggerated the dangers posed by both the student movements and the black protest of the 1960s. Equality for women was the furthest thing from their minds…. Indeed, most of them, with the exception of Richard Wright and Reinhold Niebuhr, seemed to have not all that much interest in the question of race at all…. There may have been an antidemocratic tinge….

Nevertheless, Wolfe insists

for all their flaws, these thinkers stand redeemed today because they brought both the classical and the Enlightenment understandings of politics back to life and thereby offered a starting point for trying to understand why Americans, who profess to love democracy and freedom, elected as their president in 2016 a man and a party that seemed to respect neither….

One could dismiss or even attack their positions so long as American politics showed some signs of stability. Alas, such complacency, given the right-wing demagoguery shaking both the world and this country, is no longer affordable…. That is why, despite their occasional blind spots, it makes sense to return to what these intellectuals had to say…. If Trump's accession to the presidency does not cause intense introspection, nothing can. It is, furthermore, not an explanation of one rogue election we need. It is a discussion of what kind of nation we have become.

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Rural Resentment and 2020

Rural Resentment and 2020

By Wade Lee Hudson

Hillary Clinton might be President today if she’d read articles Katherine J. Cramer wrote prior to 2016.  A Wisconsin native, Cramer has studied political attitudes in rural Wisconsin since 2007. She’s informally visited with residents, engaged in extensive conversations, and listened closely. What she’s learned is revealing. Now that the University of Chicago Press has published her book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, Democrats have no excuse if they don’t pay attention to her discoveries in the 2020 elections.

Cramer’s book echoes Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide our Politics (see “Irrational Populism”), which calls for “an overarching theory beyond the idea that all elites and outsiders are bad and the people are good.” In a similar vein, Cramer argues that ordinary people should understand their circumstances “as the product of broad social, economic, and political forces,” rather than the “fault of guilty and less deserving social groups.” She says, “The purpose of this book is...to illuminate how we blame each other.”

[You’re invited to help develop an overarching theory that explains those broad forces by  participating in the Transform the System Dialog.]

According to Cramer, her term “rural consciousness”

signals an identification with rural people and rural places and denotes a multifaceted resentment against cities…. I heard them complaining that government and public employees are the product of anti-rural forces and should obviously be scaled back as much as possible…. It informed their frequently negative perceptions of public employees.

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Irrational Populism

Irrational Populism

Irrational Populism
By Wade Lee Hudson

Intuitions provide insight, but “gut feelings” can lead to irrational dogmatism if they aren’t subjected to scientific logic and deliberative thinking. Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide our Politics concludes that the rising global populist threat calls for “an overarching theory beyond the idea that all elites and outsiders are bad and the people are good.” TransformTheSystem.org offers such a theory. Its aim is to counter scapegoating, demonizing, and counter-productive, misplaced anger.

Our primary problem is not the elite. Our primary problem is not how our economy and government are structured. Those problems are symptoms. Our primary problem is the System---our domination-based social system that weaves together all of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals, who reinforce the System with selfish daily actions.

Enchanted America, by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, documents how “Intuitionists” are gaining ground against “Rationalists.” They write:

The Intuitionist/Rationalist split is not like other political divisions in the United States. Intuitionism poses an threat to democracy. It is neither benign nor temperate. It bristles against open inquiry, is intolerant of opposition, and chafes at the pluralism and compromise modern democracy requires. It is prone to conspiracy theory, drawn to simple generalizations, and quick to vilify the other.

Intuitionists reflect an “absence of conscious purposeful thought [and] rely on their internal feelings.” They just “know” that some things are right. One form of Intuitionism is “magical thinking,” which contradicts ideas “that are validated by testing and observation.”

Rationalists, on the other hand, “utilize abstract theories, philosophical deductions, and observable facts.” They view problems “in a dispassionate manner, seeking pragmatic, technical solutions.”

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A Shallow, Leftist Critique of “The Coddling of the American Mind”

By Wade Lee Hudson

Google’s top result for reviews of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is Moira Weigel’s scathing criticism published by The Guardian. Numerous well-credentialed pundits lauded the essay for having “eviscerated” and “systematically demolished” the book.

But Weigel’s review illustrates the problem Lukianoff and Haidt document: leftists often violate liberal principles. Many conservatives also violate their own principles. Condescending authoritarianism across the political spectrum sows division.

Until activists stop being so defensive and learn to be more self-critical, they’ll continue to undermine massive popular action. Prospects for establishing compassionate policies supported by super-majorities of the American people will fade.    

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Trickle-Down Tolerance

Human beings are a bundle of contradictions. Multiple instincts compete. Then, from time to time, external factors trigger particular inner experiences and the national mood fluctuates. Politicians, especially the President, amplify one human potential or another. To garner support, new leaders contrast themselves to old leaders. The pendulum swings.

In Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck examine this dynamic. They argue:

Simply being a member of a group is not the same thing as identifying or sympathizing with that group. The key is whether people feel a psychological attachment to a group….

The...power of group identities...depends on context. One part of the context is the possibility of gains and losses for the group…,[which] can be tangible...or symbolic, such as psychological status….

Another and arguably even more important element of the context is political actors. They help articulate the content of a group identity, or what it means to be part of a group. Political actors also identify, and sometimes exaggerate or even invent, threats to a group. Political actors can then make group identities and attitudes more salient and elevate them as criteria for decision-making.

Group loyalties “can and often do” create hostility toward other groups. But relationships to other groups “do not have to be competitive.

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The New Age Gets (Somewhat) Political

The New Age Gets (Somewhat) Political

A review
A New Republic of the Heart:
An Ethos for Revolutionaries
Terry Patten
North Atlantic Books, 2018
384 p., $17.95

Only a few political people are becoming more spiritual, but many spiritual people are becoming more political, aiming to integrate the personal, social, cultural and political dimensions of human experience. This development is encouraging.

The Shift Network, a clearinghouse of information about such integrative projects founded by Stephen Dinan, is “a transformative education company” that aims to “work together to create a better world…[by] shifting toward a planet that is healthy, sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous for all.” Their offerings do not “focus solely on your personal transformation but also on how we can shift our world.”

Marianne Williamson, an American spiritual teacher, activist, and author of 13 books, including four New York Times best sellers, is a candidate for President. Her new book, A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution will be released April 23. She declares:

Corporatocracy has replaced democracy as our primary organizing principle, our government has become little more than a system of legalized bribery, and politicians too often advocate for short-term corporate profit maximization before the health and well-being of people and planet.

And Terry Patten’s 2018 magnum opus, A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries, rooted in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, has received strong praise from many New Age thinkers as well as Joan Blades, MoveOn.org co-founder. Presented as “a guide to inner work for holistic change,” Patten’s 384-page book includes many valuable insights, especially with regard to personal and spiritual growth, often presented with poetic passion. Unfortunately, his political perspective is weak, and the book is redundant, contradictory, and inconsistent with its logic.

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DeRay Mckesson and the Domination-Submission System

DeRay Mckesson and the Domination-Submission System

Societies are based on self-perpetuating social systems. That’s why they’re stable. Personal, social, cultural, economic, and political elements are woven together, reinforce one another, and serve a common purpose.

America is fueled by the drive to climb social ladders, gain more wealth, status, or power, and look down on and dominate those below -- with little regard for others’ suffering. In doing so, we learn to submit to, envy, and resent those above us.

On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope by DeRay McKesson, a dramatic memoir about his activism interwoven with essays, clarifies these dynamics. He writes:

There was a time when I believed that racism was rooted in self-interest or economics — the notion that white supremacy emerged as a set of ideas to codify practices rooted in profit. I now believe that the foundation of white supremacy rests in a preoccupation with dominance at the expense of others, and that the self-interest and economic benefits are a result, not a reason or cause. I believe this because of the way that white supremacy still proliferates in contexts where there is no self-interest other than the maintenance of power. I have seen it hold sway even in contexts where it does not materially benefit the white people who hold the beliefs.

McKesson argues that if we are to “change the system,” we must see how individual decisions “aggregate over time” to intentionally create “power over” rather than “power with.” He urges whites to not “forget that there is a larger system that led to their personal advantages,” and defines institutions as “the collective response of individuals, hardened over time.” This process produces “structural issues at play that promote oppression…., an intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions that allow the privilege to manifest.”

His image of the bully illustrates the point. …

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Irrational Politics

Irrational Politics

Human beings join tribes. This instinct is biological. Tribes assume moral superiority over and seek to dominate other tribes. Winning is primary. The price of victory is secondary. These battles produce strong emotions that distort reality.

When tribes join with other tribes into super-tribes, a threat to one tribe is a threat to every tribe. Life becomes more dangerous and irrational. Republicans and Democrats are super-tribes. They focus on winning the next election.

The development of these electoral super-tribes has undermined the ability of legislators to compromise, which is the heart of democracy. Legislators must compromise to address difficult problems, but increased polarization has made it more difficult. Tribalism is pulling the country ever deeper into a downward spiral of bitter gridlock.

Compromise is not always timely. Militant activism can help bring attention to pressing issues and build pressure for stronger improvements. But outside the electoral arena, on the left and the right, doctrinaire, victory-centric tribes have also formed super-tribes. They demonize opponents, resist all compromise, and disregard the consequences of their actions. The result is profound fragmentation.

The time has come for everyone to step back and engage in critical self-evaluation. Learning to overcome arrogant, hyper-competitive, domineering tribalism is essential in order to unite and transform this nation into a compassionate community.

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity by Lilliana Mason analyzes Republicans and Democrats. Her book applies to other tribes as well.

Mason argues:

A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store. This is no longer a single social identity. Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity.

Mason calls this dynamic “social polarization.” The convergence of multiple identities into one mega-identity leads to greater stereotyping, prejudice, and emotional volatility -- and makes us “increasingly blind to our commonalities.”

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Democrats, Border Walls, and Social Polarization

Democrats, Border Walls, and Social Polarization

As Lilliana Mason reports in her shocking, disturbing Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity (2018), many scientific studies prove that human beings are afflicted with a deep-seated instinct to polarize into highly competitive, mean-spirited tribes. Emotions rooted in the body associated with politics and sports are remarkably similar. Those powerful feelings, often unconscious, can distort reality and undermine ethical behavior. Winning becomes primary, consequences secondary.

In order to win, polarized tribes will sacrifice their own self-interest as well as the needs of others. Tribal members enjoy seeing opponents suffer even if they themselves don’t benefit. Their unconscious bias results in destructive discrimination and produces a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Rather than reach agreement on how to relieve suffering, they prefer to fight win-or-lose symbolic, ideological battles over abstractions like “the government,” “capitalism,” or “the wall.” Meanwhile four percent of the world’s children die by the age of five and the planet is burning up.

Mason argues that both Republicans and Democrats are examples.

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The American Dream, Redefined

The American Dream, Redefined

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua is a valuable, challenging book. The American Dream, however, is more complicated than Chua acknowledges.

Chua affirms a self-critical American Dream “that recognizes past failure.” She also rightly criticizes those who reduce America to “a nation founded on genocide and on the backs of slaves.” She writes:

In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism…[which] creates a virtuous Us and a demonized Them.

Her point is well-taken. Progressives often express a holier-than-thou attitude toward typical Americans and do not adopt a balanced stance toward America’s strengths and weaknesses.

Chua’s less judgmental perspective declares that “generations seeking justice have done so for the promise of America….  [which] allows -- indeed, gains strength from allowing -- all those subgroup identities to flourish…. “ She proposes strengthening America’s identity as the only nation that is not based on ethnicity, but rather is an inclusive “super-group” with everyone “united by their common humanity and love of liberty.” She believes:

It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings; we need to view one another as fellow Americans. And for that we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts…. What holds the United States together is the American Dream.

But her definition of the American Dream is mistakenly rooted in the pursuit of great wealth.

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A Marshall Plan for the Earth

A Marshall Plan for the Earth

Naomi Klein’s exhaustive, passionate This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) is an inspiring call to action that exposes many myths associated with the climate debate. But it falls short.

Some ten years ago, Bolivia’s representative to a United Nations climate-change conference, Angelica Navarro Llanos, declared:

If we are to curb emissions in the next decade, we need a massive mobilization larger than any in history. We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth. This plan must mobilize financing and technology transfer on scales never seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people’s quality of life. We have only a decade.

During that conference, Klein, author of No Logo and Shock Doctrine, met with Navarro Llanos. Klein says that meeting was “the precise moment when I stopped averting my eyes to the reality of climate change, or at least allowed my eyes to rest there for a good while.” That experience led her to write This Changes Everything.

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The People vs. Democracy: A Review

The People vs. Democracy: A Review

Less than one-third of Americans born since 1980 believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy. In 2011, 44 percent of Americans aged 18-24 liked the idea of a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections, an increase of 10 percent since 1995.

Those statistics in The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk may be the most disturbing facts in Mounk’s troubling book, which documents how liberal democracy is under attack throughout the world.

It’s tempting to trust the young to save us. Their opinions on many matters are moving this country in a compassionate direction. But any such confidence would be wrong. Opposition to liberal democracy is growing among the youth as well. Mounk’s book, published by Harvard University Press, argues convincingly that even in the United States liberal democracy is fragile.

Mounk offers the following definitions:

  • A democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy.

  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).

  • A liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic….

  • Democracies can be illiberal...where most people favor subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike.

Conversely, liberal regimes can be undemocratic…[when] elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

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The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You

The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You

[NOTE: This explosive speech led to the fantastic book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.]

I gave the following speech at the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum, on July 29, 2015, in Aspen. The talk — on generosity versus justice — was to my fellow fellows in the Aspen Global Leadership Network. As a result, it contains some obscure jokes and references. After it popped up in David Brooks’s New York Times column and stirred an outpouring of discussion, sympathetic and critical, I decided to post the prepared text here on Medium. The video is also available here and below. Discuss!

…The Aspen Consensus, in a nutshell, is this: the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm….

[To read the speech, click here.]

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The Courage to Be

The Courage to Be

Paul Tillich is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, if not the most influential.

Originally published more than fifty years ago, his The Courage to Be (1952) has become a classic, designated one of the Books of the Century by the New York Public Library. It describes the dilemma of modern man, especially the problem of anxiety.

The 2014 edition includes a new introduction by Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City.  Cox situates the book within the theological conversation into which it first appeared and conveys its continued relevance in the current century.

Comments on the book:

“The Courage to Be changed my life. It also profoundly impacted the lives of many others from my generation.”--Robert N. Bellah, University of California, Berkeley

“The brilliance, the wealth of illustration, and the aptness of personal application . . . make the reading of these chapters an exciting experience.”―W. Norman Pittenger, New York Times Book Review

“A lucid and arresting book.”―Frances Witherspoon, New York Herald Tribune

“Clear, uncluttered thinking and lucid writing mark Mr. Tillich’s study as a distinguished and readable one.”―American Scholar

Excerpts from The Courage to Be:

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“Your Privilege is Showing”

“Your Privilege is Showing”

Mutual support for self-development can be risky (as well as valuable). Phoebe Maltz Bovy addresses some of the dangers in The Perils of “Privilege,” Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. In her extensive, important, informative, and disturbing review, Bovy evaluates the “call-out culture” -- a recent explosion that’s commonly reflected in the charge, “Your privilege is showing.” Her observations suggest more effective ways to nurture personal growth and political action.

Privilege -- whether “earned,” gained by birth or luck, or granted arbitrarily -- is an advantage held by a particular person or group. Bovy affirms “admirable self-awareness of advantage” and agrees with Roxanne Gay’s statement: “If you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.” But she strongly criticizes most efforts to increase privilege awareness.


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Great Transition Initiative: A Beacon of Positivity

Great Transition Initiative: A Beacon of Positivity

Discovering folks like Asoka Bandarage who affirm holistic, systemic transformation is heartening (see “A Holistic Masterpiece”). It’s even more rewarding to find the Great Transition Initiative (GTI), a large network whose members engage in thoughtful online dialog. These efforts counter the divisiveness that’s spreading like a plague throughout society.

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A Holistic Masterpiece

A Holistic Masterpiece

A tour de force by Asoka Bandarage, Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy is more in sync with my thinking than any book I’ve read. This excellent, well-written work presents a holistic framework that addresses both the whole person and the whole world. Published in 2013 with 68 pages of text and 17 pages of notes, this comprehensive essay, as described by its publisher, Palgrave Macmillan UK, offers:

An integrated analysis of the twin challenges of environmental sustainability and human well-being by investigating them as interconnected phenomena requiring a paradigmatic psychosocial transformation. She presents an incisive social science analysis and an alternative philosophical perspective on the needed transition from a worldview of domination to one of partnership.

The chapters are titled:

  • Environmental, Social, and Economic Collapse

  • Evolution of the Domination Paradigm

  • Ecological and Social Justice Movements

  • Ethical Path to Sustainability and Well-Being.

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Tailspin

Tailspin

Last Sunday on “Meet the Press” Chuck Todd interviewed Steven Brill, author of Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's 50-Year Fall -- and Those Fighting To Reverse It. As reported in the transcript, Brill’s book is a critique of “meritocracy” and the “knowledge economy.” Brill argues that in recent decades we’ve had “liberal lawyers who were coming out of liberal law schools going to liberal law firms and doing the legal engineering” that caused many of the problems we face today.

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Intimate Mutual Support

New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World -- and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describes new approaches to social change. In the second chapter, the authors highlight a key issue: identity. When an individual’s sense of self is based on top-down “old power,” it’s hard to engage in collaborative “new power.”.......

Subjective gut reactions, emotions, beliefs, norms and values shape behavior. Habitual thoughts and feelings call for careful self-examination. We can strengthen our effectiveness by undoing some of our conditioning. If we change ourselves, we can better change the world.

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