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The Moral Wrongs of Obamacare. Part 1. Entrenching the Medical-Industrial Compex

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I believe it is important to set down, in as methodical and systematic way as possible, the ways in which Obamacare is not only risky or potentially harmful, but actually something morally wrong.  Several times I’ve begun to write an article that does this, and each time had to quit as the task became simply overwhelming in scope.  It is a big issue, a huge one.  We’re talking about something that may constitute, both in what it is and what it may lead to, a fundamental restructuring of the system of American government and the nature of our society.  Yet, as many times as I give up and put the project aside, I feel dissatisfied for having done so and return to it again.

In part, what I face is what every person faces when, in a debate, they encounter the big lie.  The big lie is the tactic by which a party presents a falsehood so enormous, so outrageous, so utterly beyond the realm of plausibility, that it literally overwhelms the ability of the other party to refute it.  The opponent is simply flummoxed, bewildered by the sheer audacity.  The big lie changes the ground rules of a debate, transforming what should be an earnest attempt by two agents of good-will to find the truth, into something of bad-will.  The big lie is a power play, a trick, which seeks to win  by deceit and  subterfuge.

The big lie tactic therefore, is not used, or should not be, by decent people, either in debates between two people, or between groups of individuals in a social or political context.  However in the present case we are not debating an individual, nor groups of individuals.  We are ‘debating’ – in a broad sense of that term – a vast system, something intrinsically amoral.  It is a system like or analogous to the military-industrial complex, but something much greater; a system that includes our government, our political parties, Wall Street, multinational corporations, and our news and entertainment media.  Moreover, each of us is, to varying extents, consciously or unconsciously, part of this system.  Anyone who has a mutual fund or retirement plan with dividends linked to Wall Street profits, is, to some extent, part of this system.  This system is our opponent.  That it resorts to the big lie to sway public opinion is the least of our problems.

One reason the big lie tactic is so effective is that an opponent faced with the prospect of refuting it envisions how hard a task it will be, and simply gives up before trying.  Much as I might like to do that, I simply don’t see it at as an option.  The only alternative, therefore, is to try to make this daunting task more manageable by breaking into several smaller ones.  The present, then, will be the first of several installments dedicated to this.

Preliminary Remarks

Some preliminary remarks are in order.  First I wish the reader to know that I am most certainly committed to the principle of social justice – both in general, and in the particular matter of health care.  I *am* a health professional, and I chose that profession not to make money, but because helping people with health and psychological problems is in my nature.  It is my vocation (or, at least, one of my vocations).  In fact, it is precisely *because* I care about people’s health that I am opposed to Obamacare, which I see as ultimately harmful to public health. I have major political and economic concerns, also; but, frankly, I would be willing to overlook these were it not for the disastrous effects on public health.

Second, I should make clear that it is not Obamacare in particular that I am concerned about, but rather any attempt to place the healthcare system further under the management and direction of the federal government.  If a plan of universal health care administered at the level of local or county governments could be developed, I would have much less reason to object.  In any case, it is certainly not because the new plan is associated with President Obama that I object.  For me that is simply a term.

Third, I wish to clarify what I mean by “moral wrong.”  I mean this in the strictly technical sense of moral philosophy.  That is by “moral wrong” I mean (1) what is opposite or opposed to moral good; and (2) that which we therefore have a moral responsibility to prevent, change, or oppose.

Finally, it should be pointed out that I am not writing this out of any need or wish on my part to merely complain or criticize.  There is already too much emotionalism, antagonism, and partisan strife in society today.  I know better than to be part of that.  I am writing because I should.  I have many years’ experience in diverse facets of the health field, an insider’s perspective (including positions at
Duke University, Wake Forest University, and the RAND Corporation) and, it could honestly be said, a uniquely informed one.  Much as I might like to evade it, I have a civic responsibility to write about this.

These clarifications made, let’s proceed to the analysis.

Reason 1.  Industrial Medicine

The first and greatest reason why I see Obamacare as morally wrong is that it will consolidate and entrench the paradigm of modern industrial medicine in our society.

By consolidate I mean it will strengthen and make more prominent the model of industrial medicine, and those organizations and institutions that promote it, and it will drive out competing, non-industrial health paradigms.  By entrench I mean that, once consolidated, it will be extremely hard, almost impossible, at least for many years, to change that paradigm.  We will watch in anger and disgust as public health and healthcare deteriorate, and be powerless to change it.

By modern industrial medicine I mean the prevailing system by which medicine is practiced today, which emphasizes (1) domination of healthcare and policy by large corporations, (2) treatment rather than prevention; and (3) expensive rather than moderately or low-priced alternatives.

The modern paradigm of industrial medicine is inextricably linked with profit motivation.  The innovations in healthcare, the new products that emerge, are those which deliver the most profit to corporations.  The nature of the system is that there is every incentive to develop expensive, invasive interventions, and virtually none to produce less expensive and less invasive treatments.  The paradoxical nature of “health for profit” can be illustrated with a hypothetical example: if we had the technology to develop a pill that cured the common cold that cost .1 cent per dose, we wouldn’t do so.  There’d be no profit in it.  But if the same pill could be sold for $10, companies would be fighting tooth and nail to develop and market it.

Similarly, it is well within our technological ability to wipe out a global scourge like malaria; but this receives comparatively little attention, because it isn’t seen as profitable.  I don’t know the actual statistics, but wouldn’t surprise me if more money is spent in the US developing new versions of Viagra and Cialis than goes into anti-malaria research.

Malaria doesn’t affect public health in the US, but obesity does.  So do the effects of alcohol and tobacco use.  The effects of this deadly trio alone probably account for at least half of all hospital admissions in the US.  We have virtually an unlimited ability to prevent these problems.  Anybody can stop smoking.  Most obesity can be prevented by intervening in childhood.  But, again, it’s much more profitable to treat the outcomes of these problems than to concentrate on prevention.

This problem affects the very foundation of medicine, the culture of it.  It affects how physicians, nurses, and medical researchers are trained.  It affects undergraduate education.  By the time someone gets an MD or a research PhD, they are fully indoctrinated in this model.  It becomes difficult to think of health in any other terms.

As long as the federal government stays out of healthcare there is some hope for change.  We always have the potential for new ideas and innovators to arise at the grass-roots level, to demonstrate new paradigms, which catch on and influence others.  But the danger of Obamacare is that, in centralizing healthcare delivery, planning, and policy to an unprecedented degree, and laying the foundation for still further centralization, we make it much harder for the grass-roots kind of innovation to occur.  Instead, will have a massively top-down model of dissemination of technology and practice.  Centralized boards will review and approve only certain medical procedures, and will pressure all players to use these methods.  Further, it is the large corporations who will have the most influence in choosing these methods and designing policies.  Naturally these policies will lean towards  practices and a basic philosophy of medicine that produces the most profits.

It is not just the actual dangers outlined above that concern me.  Beyond these is the fact that we will be placing literally our lives under the control of a vast, amoral, non-human system.  We have already seen, over the last 50 or 60 years, what happens when we place national defense in the hands of such a system: instead of peace, which is the natural desire of every human being, we have perpetual war.  Our collective policy becomes utterly dehumanized, and inimical to each individual.  I do not see how we can expect anything different when we hand over control of our health to the federal government and profit-driven corporate system.

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

A Better Alternative to Facebook

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Now back to social commentary.

Here are some reasons you don’t want to use Facebook:

1. Basically lousy software: often doesn’t work; inflexible; lacks useful features;
2. Ads, ads and ads;
3. Unsettling feeling that you’re a pawn in Facebook’s get-rich-quick scheme;
4. Ultimately, Facebook is a tool of the corporatist/government/news media power structure, deceitfully hidden under the guise of a “community-building social network platform”.

They want to build a community alright – of dumbed down, brainwashed, stressed out, divided, agitated and confused  consumer units.

The user-unfriendliness of Facebook is deplorable.  Any decent software engineer could design a better interface over a cup of coffee (and probably implement it in a week!)

As proof, consider how easily we could lay out specs for a better system.  It could be as simple as this:

1.  Instead of subscribing to Facebook, you (and everybody) set up a personal blog, or just a Tumblr account.
2. Whenever you see an interesting web page or news story or have a picture or comment, post it to your blog or Tumblr page instead of FB.  (These days you can do this automatically from your web browser.)

3. One more thing is needed. Each person needs a blog aggregator web page.  This is basically a page you own, which has feeds to all your friends’ blogs.  If one of your friends posts something to their blog, a notice is given on your accumulator page.  This can easily be done using RSS feeds.  Very possibly there is already way to set up such an accumulator page (or the equivalent) in Tumblr, WordPress or Blogspot etc.

4.  If you see an interesting item on your accumulator page and want to comment, simply go to your friend’s blog and comment there.

Voila!  A better alternative to Facebook, without ads, where you totally control the content.  Someone with just a little programming knowledge could easily design a customized personal front-end page (i.e., accumulator page), in any format desired.  For example, you could have your friends’ comments, news headlines on topics of interest, and announcements from business or organizations you like in separate columns or sections.

Another possibility would be to have some third-party service set up accumulator pages for people for free or a very nominal price.

(Yes, I know that, in theory, Google and Yahoo offer this feature; but you can only personalize the pages they supply to a very limited extent.)

This sort of thing — a fully personalized ‘news and views’ front end page is the whole point of RSS feeds anyway.  These totally personalized pages should be routine.  A likely reason people aren’t already using them is because the big corporate entities — Facebook, Google, etc. — are trying to co-opt the Internet for their nefarious purposes.

So, ultimately, Facebook is not needed – unless maybe you find it somehow beneficial to know how many of your friends’ ‘friends’ are illiterate, boring or nuts.

Written by John Uebersax

August 11, 2012 at 12:37 am

The Psychology of Political Fighting

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Question:  Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist.  Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now?  It seems like that’s all people do these days?  Perplexed in Peoria.

Answer: Dear Perplexed.  Thank you for your question.  No doubt many people are asking the same thing.

The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one.  There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response.  In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.

Imitation.  Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior.  Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation.  For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture.  Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword.  We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones.  This is related to the phenomenon of conformity.  In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way.  They can change very rapidly.  Once a critical mass of  “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform.  Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.

Instigation.  The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict.  News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation.  As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government.  Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism.  We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm  us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.

Stress.  Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody.  It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.

Ignorance.  People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects.  First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking.  Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose).  Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy.  Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills.  Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.

Laziness.  This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative.  Partly this is due to stress and fear.

Lack of good examples.  This is self-explanatory.  Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones.  Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.

False opinion.  By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact.  Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions.  Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely.  At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs.  But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts.  Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts.  In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.

Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates.  (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant).  From Socrates we also learn the solution.  Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance.  That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.”  The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions.  By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.

Schematizing.  In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world.  This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception.  We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it.  If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so.  We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.

Identity.  One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity.  If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses.  People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.

Perversity.  So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord.  These ones are not very threatening.  Most people can probably agree that they exist.  But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues.  The first of these is the perverse side of human nature.  Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good.  Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy.  Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose.  In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful.  The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.

Concupiscence.  If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples).  To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order.  The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience.  And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason.  By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one  has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.

Collective selfishness.  From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level.  We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures.  To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused.  If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged.  Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.

Question:  That’s more than I bargained for!  With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless?  How can we straighten out something this complex?

Answer:  It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others.  If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible.  Fortunately, there is a short cut solution.   So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective.  But there is another dimension to the human person:  that of ethics and moral nature.  In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.

The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure.  All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis.  Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence.  These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc.  In short, it means seeking the finer things.  This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.

Question:  Great!  So how do we get other people to do that?

Answer:  The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.

The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.

Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties.  A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her.  If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.

Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it.  Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.

Question:  And how is that done?  Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?

Answer:  One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.)  Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy.  The Westerner will find much of value in  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms.   A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”.  In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable.  The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.

The Obsolescence of War and its Implications for Countering Terrorism

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The Obsolescence of War and its Implications for Countering Terrorism

A point emphasized in several Nobel Peace Prize Lectures of the 1950´s and 60´s (e.g., those of Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr) is the obsolescence of war.  It was noted that modern technology had produced weapons of awesome power.  This meant we had no choice but to evolve beyond war, because, with such weapons, the prospect of war was no longer thinkable — too much harm would be done.  For those too young to remember, this was a widely held view in the years following the development of nuclear weapons.

However this reasoning does not just apply to nuclear weapons.  As the 9/11 attacks illustrate, technology had made it  possible to easily inflict massive harm in other ways.  A few extremists were able to get control of huge jets and fly them into buildings, killing thousands.  It could have been even worse.  The jets could have been flown into nuclear reactor power plants, potentially producing much greater devastation and loss of life.  Other realistic scenarios we must contend with are use of biological weapons on civilians, attacks to the electrical power infrastructure, poisoning of water supplies, or even things like computer viruses.  Any of these could be used by a few terrorists or a small country to inflict great harm.  Coupled with the continued threat of nuclear proliferation, the potential threats are so many, and so easily accessible, that, we are more vulnerable than ever.

Fifty years ago,  the consensus was that our only choice was to evolve ourselves — by dint of sheer will, if necessary — out of the mentality that begets war and violence.  If that was so then, how much more true it is now.  Further, the very fact that people are not saying such things today is itself extremely serious and revealing.  It means we are collectively less wise and more confused than people were then.  In this atmosphere of confusion, desperation, and loss of vision, people are even more likely to lapse in their judgment and make use of such weapons.

This pertains directly to the US involvement in Afghanistan, and the stance of modern governments towards terrorism.  Yes, terrorism is a terrible thing, and we must be prepared to work with intense dedication to prevent terrorist attacks.  But in today’s technologically advanced world we must ask more than ever:  can terrorism be effectively prevented by pre-emptive aggression or a just war?   And yet, not only is the US now falling back on the notion of a just war, one is astonished to see that no public officials are questioning it.

Even if the war in Afghanistan is ‘just’ – and there is genuine doubt as to that – two other questions must also be asked.  First, is the war winnable?  Events so far would suggest that it is not.  We are not countering a conventional army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.  The nature of terrorism in the age of modern technology is precisely that a group of dedicated extremists, few in number and extremely mobile, may hold at bay even a great military superpower.  We cannot spend $1 trillion retaliating every time there is a terrorist attack — especially if the retaliation is ineffective.

Second, we must ask: does a large military response to terrorism cause more harm than potential good by affirming the principle of aggression as a way to solve problems?

Third, we should ask why governments are so chronically unable to work for peace pro-actively.

Fourth, what has happened to the moral and ethical fabric of society?  Fifty years ago the view expressed by socially-minded intellectuals was that the moral evolution of humankind was not keeping pace with technological progress.  But at least there was a sense of there being some progress.   Now there is considerable evidence (and one need only turn on television any given evening to confirm this) that we are going rapidly going backwards.

We cannot lay blame on President Obama so much as on the failure of the intellectual community to question the continued dominance of war as a strategy for countering terrorism.

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Americans do not exclude the possibility of forgiving Osama bin Laden

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Letter to US Senator Barbara Boxer

December 24, 2009

Dear Senator Boxer,

Please be apprised that, I, as a US citizen, do not exclude the possibility of forgiving Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or of some form of general diplomatic discussions. I believe many Americans feel likewise. Neither will I hesitate to mention that ‘forgiveness of enemies’ is a central ethical principle of Christianity.

I therefore wish that the US government not proceed unquestioningly under the assumption that all or even most citizens are intent on revenge, or see no possibility of peaceful resolution of current conflicts.

Nor do I simply take it for granted that bin Laden and Al-Queda are inherently ‘evil’ and hold positions inherently and irrevocably inimical, hostile, and dangerous to the welfare of the citizens of the United States.

Further, I perceive a tendency of the government to actively shape — though perhaps unintentionally — public opinion in the direction of revenge and violence. The president’s recent remarks on Afghanistan, for example, nowhere seem to acknowledge that many Americans are hesitant about continued military involvement in Afghanistan. In effect, a false consensus on this issue is presented to the American public. The government is not making a sincere attempt to determine the true sentiments and beliefs of the people.

Indeed, if we are concerned about the events 9/11, should not our first priority be to take better care of the survivors and their families? Imagine how much more we could help these people were even a small fraction of the $1 trillion spent on Iraq and Afghanistan devoted to assisting them.

That we do not do so calls into question the sincerity of our expressed motives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sincerely yours,

John S. Uebersax PhD

Written by John Uebersax

December 24, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Liberals, Conservatives, Joan Baez and Ending the Nation-State

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Liberals, Conservatives, Joan Baez and the Nation-State

The other night I saw a reprise performance of the recent American Masters episode on the life of folksinger and political activist, Joan Baez.

It was a good program and showed what a remarkable person Joan Baez is.    She walked the walk, even to the point of voluntarily accepting incarceration several times because of her (nonviolent) opposition to the Vietnam War.

But one detail that caught my attention was a brief remark by Joan in a film clip from an early 1970′s protest:  she was  exhorting people to “end the nation-state”.

End the nation-state?  Sounds like a good idea to me — where do I sign up?

And here was Joan Baez, one of most visible “liberals” of the second half of the 20th century, saying something I agree with, even though I am a political libertarian — which most people consider a conservative position.

But there was no mistake.  Joan Baez wanted to end the nation-state.   That was the wish of liberals in the 1960′s (as with John Lennon’s song, “Imagine there’s no countries; it’s easy to do….”).  It seemed obvious to anyone with good sense that governments were the cause of wars, and that governments served generally to suppress what is best in human nature.

To liberals, the government was the problem, not the solution.  The government was causing the war in Viet Nam, and hurting everyone.  Liberals wanted to reduce government power and to end the cultic worship of governments.

But roll things forward 35 years.  Now so-called liberals are supporting massive government-run healthcare.
They’re militant about it, insisting that “poor people have a right to healthcare, and the government
should supply it, whatever the cost.”  This is not only different from the liberalism of the 60′s,  it’s really the complete opposite.

In the 60′s and 70′s, the view was that if governments would get out of the way, people could sort out their own problems.  I can say that for sure, because, at least in the 70′s, I was there marching and singing “give peace a chance.”  People were thinking, “Life is good.  If governments would get out of our lives the natural impulse to enjoy life and to love and help others would manifest itself spontaneously.”

That’s still my view.  If John Lennon were alive today, I’d like to think that would be his view, too. Somehow I just can’t imagine him singing, “Hooray for government!  Let’s give them more power!  Let them pick our pockets and design aversive, government health programs, so we can all stand in line, put up with terrible service, and be at the mercy of arrogant public officials.”  No, that’s not how a working class hero would see things.

So the great irony is that true conservatives and true liberals are on the same side:  both groups want a world which affirms human values, welfare and happiness.  And opposed to these things is an ever expanding “statism” — a vast, inhuman, oppressive machine.

This is a rather important idea, and bears further thought.  Consider how much the media makes of the supposed opposition between “conservatives” and “liberals.”  What if this turned out to be all bunk!  Could it be that human beings are in basic agreement about core values — and in an instinctive aversion to abusive government power?  And could it be that the dominant economic institutions try to invent a false conflict in order to divide and conquer the population?

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself – 2009

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Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself – 2009

The famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” come from the first inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (March 4, 1933). These comments, of course, were made in the midst of the Great Depression. The parallels between those times and the current economic crisis are worth considering.

Roosevelt’s address contained some other remarks applicable to our times:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

and also:

“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion.”

and, further:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), Roosevelt was correct in his diagnosis but wrong in his response. He leapt to the conclusion that the correct solution was to supply the federal government with massive new powers. It was correct to conclude that the solution was to be found in new commitment to service of others, but arguably incorrect to assume that the federal government must be the primary agent of this. We have paid the price of that decision ever since. Indeed, some suggest that the current economic problems are partly the result of ill-advised government policies and regulations in the 1990′s. Thus, Roosevelt also said in the same speech:

“But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

However this is no place to criticize the policies of FDR. The goal, rather, is to make two points about the current situation.

The first is that things now are not necessarily as bad as people (especially the media and governments) are making it out to be. What really counts in life are love, happiness, kindness, friendship, respect, virtue, education, and, above these all, religion and spirituality. Not only are these things money can’t buy, there is general agreement that unnecessary concern for money interferes with them.

In reality, at least those of us in the United States and Western Europe, things right now are, comparatively speaking — not that bad. Perhaps life is not (or superficially does not appear) quite as nice as 15 years ago. But, overall, it’s still better than it was 100, and probably even 50 years ago. (Recall that 50 years ago we didn’t have computers, the internet, mobile phones, compact discs, or color televisions.)

The most important of today’s problems have nothing to do with the recent economic crisis. They concern things like insufficient planning, inept government, easily preventable chronic disease, and loss of moral direction. In short, we are today experiencing a “values crisis” which far exceeds in importance any kind of economic crisis.

Further, one must seriously question whether the crisis is being exaggerated for the express purpose of producing fear in the citizenry. Fear, and its companions, anxiety and anger, have the effect of reducing the ability of the mind to focus on and solve problems. Were it not for incessant fear in modern society — a fear actively fed by popular media — perhaps we would wake up and realize how good we actually have it.

Yes, the current economic “bailout” is equivalent to placing each US citizen two or three thousand dollars in debt. So what? Before that happened I had to wake up each morning, go to work, and earn a living. It can be difficult, but it can be rewarding, too. And today nothing changes. I still do the same work, and in most outward ways my life is the same, yet somehow there’s this ominous word “crisis” floating about.

It is a blessing to be alive. It is a blessing to be in the midst of other people. The only problem is our own inability to see what great, miraculous things these are!

But this post isn’t a simple morality sermon. Yes, I would indeed exhort all to discover the immense potential of love and joy in their lives. But I am more really more concerned here with drawing attention to what prevents this, which is fear.

The System creates fear. The System wants fear. That is the problem we have to face and overcome.

But what is the System? We know it exists. We suspect that in involves interacting levels of government, economic institutions, and the media. But we can’t define it exactly. Its very ambiguity, in fact, is one of its most problematic features.

But fear is its greatest weapon, because once the mind is occupied with fear, the two things the System most wants to prevent — namely love and reason — are crowded out.

At least we can say this much with some confidence: whatever produces fear, especially in a widespread and systematic fashion, is likely a direct manifestation of the System. Knowing this we may remain alert, prepared to defend ourselves, and able to avoid getting drawn into fear. We know the face of the enemy.

However it is too simplistic to merely to see an external System as the cause of all our problems.

While, again, the details are not clear, it is nevertheless a consistent empirical observation that the System is somehow connected with our own internal states.  To some extent the System is a projection or external manifestation of our own personal disorder.  Thus our primary weapon against the System consists in self-improvement, growing in virtue, and purifying the ego.

Here we have alluded to two related but distinct issues.  There is fear, but there is also failure to appreciate the good things in life.  It is not only that fear makes us unable to see the good things.  To a certain degree the reverse is also true:  by failing to remember and see the good things, we leave ourselves open to fear.

Thus, fear and failure to appreciate the important things interact:  fear reduces mental clarity, and lack of mental clarity makes us unable to consciously direct our attention to positive things and away from fear.

However living in a community of other human beings works to our advantage here.  We should use every opportunity to build up others, to encourage them, and to direct their attention to positive things.

Written by John Uebersax

April 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Latest Pope Bashing by the Media

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Latest Pope Bashing by the Media

Eager to seize even the slightest pretense for bashing the Pope, news media, European governments, and even medical journals have taken his recent comments about African AIDS completely out of context.

The Lancet even went so far as to accuse His Holiness of “manipulating science” and having “publicly distorted scientific evidence”. Apparently his critics have not bothered to read the transcript of his remarks. The context makes it plain that Pope Benedict scarcely denies the physical effects of condoms. His point, as his preceding sentences makes plain, was that the real solution to the AIDS crisis is to strengthen spiritual values in society — including a respect for continence and personal virtue. It is not condoms per se which contribute to the AIDS epidemic, but materialistic values which over-reliance on condoms as public policy promotes. Governments are happy to distribute condoms, but afraid to tell people: “look, you are spiritual beings with moral responsibilities; act that way.”

The Pope isn’t afraid to say that, and for exposing the pretensions of atheistic civil government they are attacking him.

They are counting on the fact that people won’t bother to read the transcript of the interview in question.

The relevant portion is as follows:

Moderator – Now a further question from a French speaker: our colleague Philippe Visseyrias from France 2:

VisseyriasYour Holiness, among the many ills that beset Africa, one of the most pressing is the spread of AIDS. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight it is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this theme during the journey? Holy Father, would you be able to respond in French to this question?

Pope - [Reply in Italian]. I would say the opposite. I think that the most efficient, most truly present player in the fight against AIDS is the Catholic Church herself, with her movements and her various organizations. I think of the Sant’Egidio community that does so much, visibly and also behind the scenes, in the struggle against Aids, I think of the Camillians, and so much more besides, I think of all the Sisters who take care of the sick. I would say that this problem of Aids cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension [se non c’è l’anima -- literally, if there is not soul], if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it. The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practise self-denial, to be alongside the suffering. And so these are the factors that help and that lead to real progress: our twofold effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct towards our bodies and those of others, and this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.

Here is a letter of reply I submitted to The Lancet.

To the Editors:

Subject: The Lancet Catholic Bashing

Concerning your editorial [1] on recent comments of Pope Benedict XVI:

A basic principle of science and civil discourse holds that, as words are inherently limited and ambiguous, one should consider context and interpret another’s statements generously. This is especially true when translation between languages is involved.

The opposite — to interpret something in the least charitable way — implies prejudice.

Clearly the Pope does not wish to “manipulate science” and has not “publicly distorted scientific evidence” as the editorial states; to suggest this reflects badly on the motives, credibility, and critical thinking of the Editors.

As the full transcript [2] shows, his comments were ethical in nature: they observed — correctly — that an excessive public emphasis on condoms, and the resulting underemphasis on issues of the soul (“se non c’è l’anima”), personal virtue, and continence, supports an overly casual cultural attitude towards extra-marital sex which is a major contributor to the AIDS epidemic.

To paraphrase your own remark: When an influential medical journal makes comments that misrepresent the intentions and statements of religious leaders in ways that could injure the religious health of many millions of people, it should retract or correct the public record.

The Editors should seek the causes of their inability to discern the plain meaning and intentions of the Pope. Perhaps this is a clue: Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart. (Eph 4:18)

John S. Uebersax PhD
Brussels, Belgium

References:

1. The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9669, Page 1054, 28 March 2009

2. “Interview of the holy father benedict xvi during the flight to Africa”. 17 March 2009.
Available at: http://www.vatican.va. (Accesssed 27 March 2009).

Written by John Uebersax

March 27, 2009 at 7:03 pm

The Irony of Jon Stewart’s Diatribes Against Wall Street

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The Irony of Jon Stewart’s Diatribes Against Wall Street

Lately Jon Stewart, dean of cable television comedy and host of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has been sanctimoniously criticizing Wall Street for their role in the economic meltdown. Technically, he’s right: greedy financial speculators supported a climate of easy mortgage lending, made loans, sold the loans for profit, then walked away to leave everybody else holding the bag (or in this case, a lot of defaulted loans.)

But he’s really missing the point. He’s not delving deeply enough into the collective psyche of the American public — and that’s where the root problem is to be found. This is a topic about which much still needs to be said, but the point at present is to note the irony in Jon Stewart’s being so self-righteous.

The ultimate problem with American society, which has led to the current economic problems, is an erosion of traditional values and common sense. And the milieu of false values, materialism and moral confusion actively promoted by the media — and television in particular — is a large contributor.

Jon Stewart has never severed his ties with MTV, where he got his start. On the one hand, you get the impression that Jon is a nice, conventional Jewish guy, with traditional values and views about God, morality, and so on. Yet he still actively promotes MTV, with personal appearances, among other things, seemingly oblivious to the tremendous negative impact that channel has had on the minds of the young. I say “young,” but in fact those young in the 1980′s, when MTV got started, are now middle aged adults.

It would be difficult to enumerate all the ways that MTV exerts a negative cultural influence. At the very least we can say it promotes a philosophy of: atheism, relativism, sensualism, anti-intellectualism, and condescension towards traditional religion and values.

Now keep in mind that I am scarcely a fundamentalist, right-wing reactionary saying these things. I am a pretty open-minded person. I write essays on things like the Egyptian Book of the Dead — not exactly the kind of thing you find in the “Christian right.”

No, I am simply someone who still has at least half a brain, and am able to see the shabby MTV brainwashing for what it is: a crass attempt of commercial industries, including television and the music industry, to dumb down the public, to appeal to base appetites, and to shape thinking — for the sake of profit.

And Jon Stewart is there in the middle of the whole thing. He’s potentially doing more harm than good. Yes, he’s drawing some attention to Wall Street’s role in the economic crisis. But he’s also presenting the Comedy Channel, where Stewart’s show appears, as place people should be looking to get the straight story. They shouldn’t. Remember, folks at the Comedy Channel are the same nice people who’ve brought America (and the rest of the world), that wretched show, South Park.

So look, I’m not going to pull my punches here, or be afraid to call a spade a spade. If you want to know what’s really wrong with America, look at the show South Park. The fact that such trash is on television at all is sad testimony to the lack of values of the entertainment industry. It’s partly because Americans are dumbed down that they bought into (literally) the easy lending scam that produced the economic crash. Obviously the entertainment industry is not the whole problem here, but (1) it is a large part of it, and (2) it’s more than ironic that Jon Stewart, as spokesman of the industry, is now acting like a moral watchdog.

So Jon, if you want to help Americans, tell them this: turn off South Park, turn off MTV, turn off Stephen Colbert, and, yes, even turn off The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; stop buying into entertainment industry propoganda; and get back in touch with the true, enduring values. Dust off that old concept, “virtue” and start thinking about what it means.

Written by John Uebersax

March 13, 2009 at 11:48 am

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