Daddy Issues


For the last four years I’ve been reading about, thinking about, and writing about violence. Most of that work will be coming out later, in a different form. But there is one thing I will tell you that is beyond doubt as it relates to violent conflict – the world is getting better, not worse. And sadly, so few of us seem to know that.

As Steven Pinker has written about many times, every form of violence, when measured objectively, is in decline. Of course there are spikes and valleys in every trend line. As an example, Chicago is currently ahead of schedule. As of mid-April, they have already had one thousand shootings. But we must not mistake fluctuations for long term trends. And that long term trend is undeniable.

You wouldn’t know that listening to the Republican candidates running for office this year. According to them the world is in more chaos than ever before. It’s not. The United States military has been gutted. It hasn’t. And America is sliding into deep decline. It isn’t. According to the Republicans, America, under President Obama’s leadership, has grown weaker. The appropriate response is panic. And the only solution is them. All of which, when checked against facts and measured against history, turns out to be irresponsible fear mongering. But few things sell anything, including demagogues, better than fear.

Please don’t mistake my accurate dismantling of Republican nonsense as a sign that I must be a Democrat. On various issues and at various times, they can be worse. How often have you heard the words “the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer,” leave the lips of some Whole Foods shopping-progressive-utopian-leftist? In fact, that mantra of the mistaken has been the cornerstone of Bernie Sanders recent campaign. And yes, it too is flat wrong – factually, provably, wrong.

While true more people are rich (is that a bad thing?), and the wealthiest folks have become wealthier, it is also true that the poor have become richer as well. Though again, most people don’t seem to know that.

This should be phenomenal news. Thanks to the spread of market economics, more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever before in history. As it currently stands, the United Nations predicts that extreme poverty as we know it may end as soon as the year 2030. Imagine that.

There don’t seem to be many progressive Democrats who see it in their own self-interest to tout the massive human benefits that market economics bring – anymore than there seem to be many conservative Republicans who currently find it in their own self-interest to let you know that the United States is still the World’s dominant economic, military, scientific, and educational power – and not by a little – but by a whole lot.

Fear sells and hysteria sells even better. Good news – well, let’s just keep that quiet. When it comes to politics, all sides preach pessimism.

I knew it!” you say, “Democrats and Republicans, they are all the same. They are all ‘equally’ dirty!”

No, that is not what I am saying. As comforting as those sorts of over simplifications may be for some, they too dissolve under the scrutiny of education and careful thought.

To listen to the typical liberal Democrat ideologue is to believe that most of the problems found within a city like Detroit in the year 2016, which suffers from high crime, high unemployment, and corrupt management, and which has been run by Democrats since 1962 – were the fault of a former life guard, movie star, and GE spokesman who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994. No folks, it isn’t your failure to learn grammatically correct English, read above a 3rd grade level, spend your time doing more than watching MTV cribs, or practice birth control that’s holding you back – it’s Reagan’s fault.

To listen to the typical right wing reactionary is to believe that their consistent inability to rise within the class system of the United States is due not to their failure to ever do more for themselves than crack open a beer at noon, or crack open a book written by anyone whose credentials don’t peak at the achievement of FOX News commentator – but is instead, the fault of Obama. Who, after all, according to sources they seem to trust, wasn’t even born here.

It isn’t that markets change over time, and as a consequence, the skills which are more valued within the marketplace change over time. No, don’t teach your kids about that actuality. Instead, stomp your feet and blame those damn politicians back in that Washington DC who are sending your jobs over to Mexicans and the Chinese. After all, why would you ever want more for your child in terms of opportunity, education, or class, then you yourself achieved?

If I sound harsh, please understand, I am not saying that people trapped in poverty somewhere in the rust belt of the United States don’t need help. What I am saying is that lying to them, telling them those jobs are coming back because some boisterous ‘strong’ man will order them back (to be clear, some may or may not come back, but it will be the market pressures of a growing world economy, and a better educated labor force within the US that bring them back, not indignation) – isn’t helpful. Telling people that illegal immigrants from Mexico are taking their jobs (they’re not, and having grown up in the CA valley I can assure you American citizens were not lining up around the Dairy Queen to apply for a job picking lettuce) – isn’t helpful. Lying to people by telling them that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor, because after all, the pie is fixed (it’s not and they’re not) – isn’t helpful.

In fact, I don’t find lying to people who need guidance and help, to ever really be helpful – which is to say, I don’t find the disinformation of the dismal, spread currently by both the progressive and conservative camps, anything other than counter-productive to human progress.

People who feel they are failing, people who have trouble keeping pace, people who believe they struggle more than others, sometimes find solace in the act of externalizing blame. We can all fall into it occasionally, I am certainly no exception. I know when I am indulging that weakness because I am at my most miserable. I try to avoid that. I find it shameful. I try and remember that everyone has to play the hand they have been dealt. Yes, that can feel unfair. Especially when, unlike poker, we can see what the other players are holding. But resentment never turned a pair of threes into a straight flush. To indulge bitterness is to embrace failure. And by selling cynicism, those politicians on the right and left who use dismay and despair as tools to pry free votes, fail the ethical test required of a good leader – honesty and inspiration. Because the world is getting better, and viewing yourself as a casualty of life, rather than an author of it, is nothing less than dis-empowering – always.

If you’re being sold the message from someone that you are a victim – walk away. If you’re being sold the message from someone that you are a victim and you find yourself liking it – run.

Increased inequality should concern us to the degree it reflects diminishing opportunity for upward mobility. To the degree growing inequality is not a reflection of diminishing opportunity; it may in fact be a positive sign. Anytime everyone on the whole is doing better, a small percentage will always achieve even more – they skew the average – and that’s not a bad thing. The economic pie is not fixed.

Those inclined to listen to the populist ideologues of the right will be told their failures are due to other groups – immigrants, Jews, liberals, evil-internationalists, one world government folks, the “establishment”, and depending on how far out on the woo-woo limb we climb, Bilderbergers and the Bohemian Grove crowd. In other words, it is Clinton and Obama’s fault.

Those inclined to listen to the populist ideologues of the left will be told their failures are due to the evil capitalists, and their white, rich, Republican cronies. Every problem on the planet can be neatly and thoughtlessly summed up by the Che Guevara t-shirt crew as the fault of pernicious capitalist-imperialism. And what is their answer to any evil that can’t be remedied by a critique of capitalist-imperialism or a withdrawal of Western military power? Never mind that, after all, everything is Reagan and Bush’s fault.

For the less than well-read, the world’s long standing problems don’t continue to exist precisely because they are complicated, multi-faceted, and hard to solve. They exist because our leaders are stupid and anti-American (right wing populist), or greedy, evil capitalists (left wing populist). In either case, all we need to do is elect a leader who tells us what we want to hear, that those in power are dumb, corrupt, inept, and malevolent, and if we just get the right person in there, they will sort this all out – they promise they will.

It never seems to dawn on some that many of the people serving in our long standing institutions are really smart, really motivated, highly educated people, who are doing the best they can. Especially if you’ve never spent time around people like that, or look around and fail to see them within your own social circle.

Understanding any complicated issue, whether it is health care, foreign policy, or economics, takes effort. It involves reading, studying, talking with those more educated on the topic than you, and thinking through your conclusions. It requires the tools of critical thinking. It demands enough humility to realize that just because you’ve read an issue of Mother Jones, clicked on a status update in your Facebook newsfeed, or tuned into the O’Reilly factor one night, doesn’t mean you have anything at all to add on a topic.

Study habits and humility are socially enforced when you spend your time around smart, knowledgeable people. They are a rarity when you spend your time around ignorant people. And they’re ridiculed when you spend your time around stupid people. For the going-nowhere-in-life crowd, daddies and demagogues are a lot more palatable than the exertion of mature intellectual effort. Why crack a book when you can crack a beer? Why spell out “who is that” when you can just say “who dat”. Baby talk is always easier, right? There can be immediate gratification and short term efficiency, in ignorance – but always at a price.

There is also efficiency in fascism, in the same way that there is efficiency in the back seat of a car when only your dad gets to decide where to go.

The comfort comes from knowing you’re excluded in the decision making process – and therefore, excluded from the responsibility.

But exclusion from responsibility doesn’t mean exclusion from consequences.

That’s worth remembering the next time someone like Donald Trump starts talking about how he will penalize, persuade, or simply ‘fix’ things via edict.

No matter how much you agree with any sentiment, regardless of how strongly it ‘feels’ good – if the means to achieve the end involves everyone else, in this case the House, the Senate, the Judiciary, your brain – and the Constitution, sitting in the backseat of the car – it’s not freedom or a Democratic Republic you are looking for – it’s daddy.