The Rising Tide of Fear and Anger


We make our lives manageable by simplifying and grouping our perceptions so we may understand them as types and so learn from experience, carrying over what we have learned from one event to another of the same type. In this way, we are able to simplify our choices, tasks, and beliefs so that, as we say, we know what we are doing. Every new day could not be entirely new for us, or we would live in continual confusion, never knowing what we were doing. We need simplicity, all of us, though some more than others. Indeed, simplifying is a survival skill. We humans cannot manage chaos; we must make sense of our many, many perceptions and experiences. We must find or make patterns, rhythms, or groupings that create order for our minds and even our feelings. Simplifying enables order, and order enables control, and we feel safe when we think and can demonstrate that we are in control.

Religion has always been one of the ways we humans have sought order in the mist of chaos, sense and meaning within life’s swirling threats and contradictions. Though writing specifically of religious simplism, Douglas John Hall says something here I think applies more generally.

But the quest for simplicity is not yet simplism. The quest for simplicity devolves into simplism when the threat to life is objectified and victory over this “enemy” no longer involves self-struggle and inner turmoil of spirit. This readily occurs in times of great peril. In anticipation of catastrophe, or in its wake, people revert to that type of irrational and plainly paranoid behavior which strikes out at the supposed cause of experienced evil, simplifying both the evil itself and their own (“good”) motives. (Thinking the Faith, 229)

My sense of stability is threatened. What or who is threatening me? Who is the enemy? What must be made to go away?

This winter, I have been listening for the sounds of fearful and angry simplism in the world around me. Here is a short list of the enemies I have heard people blame for what’s wrong in their lives:

• Muslims and their Qur’an (Koran) itself and even Islam as a whole.
• Christians and their Bible itself or even Christianity as a whole.
• Religious people and religion itself (any and all, as though it were one thing).
• Irreligious people or atheism itself.
• Feminists.
• Liberals.
• Conservatives.
• Politicians or even politics as such (the whole enterprise of trying to manage society for the public good).
• Authorities who restrict us instead of “them” (the people we think should be restricted).
• Immigrants.
• Poor people.
• Rich people.
• Women.
• Socialists (often falsely equated with Communists of the Soviet style).
• Capitalists.
• Labor unions.
• Gun “nuts.”
• Gun control advocates.
• All the usual enemies named by our historic prejudices: black people or all non-white people, “rednecks,” homosexuals, northerners, southerners, Jews, professors or intellectuals, and all manner of foreigners or strangers.

Oversimplifying leads to misunderstandings and, therefore, to false solutions that fail to solve problems and beliefs that fail to offer life meaning and purpose or make us better people. When fear and resentment are whipped into rage that takes charge of the oversimplifying, we become a danger to ourselves and others. We become effectively insane (Hall, in the quotation above, uses the term “paranoid behavior”).

Are we not now in a time of such danger? We are hearing the chants of angry and frightened people who want a strong man to arise and make “them” (the evil enemies) go away, make us feel strong and brave and great again. Beat them down! Send them home! Rough them up! Kill them and their families! Destroy the evil that threatens us and our way of life!

We are in trouble. Fueled to rage by fear and resentment, simplism poses a present danger we underestimate at our peril. In quieter times, just admitting that something might be more complex than my quick and easy judgment of it imagines can be a good start toward overcoming the fallacy of simplism, but as this spring approaches, an angry tide of simplism is rising in our land. Working through the danger instead of being swept away by it requires more than just defeating a demagogue in the presidential election; it requires us to look for and find the humanity of the people we have named our evil enemies. Only then can we recover our own humanity and our sanity as a nation.

Rejecting the View from High Above


I’m reading a book commended by two friends – James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State – that I suspect has bearing on Tuesday’s elections. The Facebook posts I’m seeing from disappointed Democrats assume that many people voted for Republicans against their own interests perhaps either because they believe Fox News type propaganda or because they simply despise the black man in the White House.  I’m not so sure, and as I continue reading Scott, I am growing less sure.

Planners from high above the ground level where the people live and go about their days do not seem to understand why people resist and subvert their grand designs, but the reality seems to be that those designs look grand only from far above the people. Democracy needs to be a conversation, not just a vote for the best design; it needs to engage us together, not just pit us against each other. 

The people have ways of subverting the grand designs of top-down (authoritarian) planners who think they know what is best for everyone.

It seems to me the Democratic Party and the current administration have failed to have such conversation with us on, for example, the Affordable Care Act (which I personally support as better than doing nothing although not really good enough) and corporate education reform (which I oppose as worse than doing nothing). The people have ways of subverting the grand designs of top-down (authoritarian) planners who think they know what is best for everyone. I highly recommend Scott’s book, but be warned it is classified as a textbook that, while quite understandable, is not light reading by most standards.

When people feel threatened, they react defensively. The less they understand changes coming their way, the more defensive they become. The less control they feel they have, the more frightened and therefore angry they grow. The less they feel regarded and respected as people, the more likely their anger will increase to rage, perhaps beyond the reach of rationality. Hearing themselves demeaned as racist ignoramuses or privileged exploiters neither calms their anger nor appeals to their reason.

Continue reading →

Makers and Takers


Who built the Great Pyramid of Giza, oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?  There seems to be general agreement that it was constructed as the tomb for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops in Greek).  So, his is the name attached to it, and we might surmise it was built at his command.  I doubt, however, that he helped to move any of the stones from the quarry to the sight or put his shoulder to the task of setting even a single stone in place or, for that matter, the task of designing and engineering the project.  Probably the actual labor of constructing (making) this wonder was performed by slaves driven by taskmasters who may themselves have been slaves or just a half-step higher on the even more formidable pyramid of the Egyptian social hierarchy.

Presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney has declared forty-seven percent of the people of the United States to be “takers” because they pay no federal income tax and, he says, take no personal responsibility for their own lives.  And why do they pay no federal income tax, even though most of them do pay state taxes, sales taxes, etc., and either pay or have paid throughout their lives payroll or self-employment taxes for Social Security and Medicare?  They don’t pay federal income tax because they don’t make enough money.  Most either work or else are retired or perhaps disabled from having worked all their lives, but Mr. Romney says they are takers.

He himself, on the other hand, has made piles of money (he won’t say how much or what federal income taxes he has paid) through asset management specializing in private equity.  His firm, Bain Capital, sometimes helped companies restructure and survive (partly by firing people), and sometimes loaded them with debt and walked away with hefty sums of money as they went bankrupt.  He calls himself and his kind of people “makers.”  The former employees laid off as part of Bain’s restructuring plans and those left jobless when some of those companies being helped went bankrupt became, through Bain’s helpful actions, takers.  They became takers of unemployment compensation and maybe of food stamps or even for a while, like Romney’s father at one point in his life, public assistance (welfare).

We are living through what I call the Walmartization of the American workforce, although Amazon might be almost as good a figure to represent what is being done to smaller businesses and to people.  Vast numbers of Americans are being kept financially marginal and dependent upon businesses that treat them as wage slaves without job stability, benefits, or collective voice.  Is this deliberately created dependency not a larger problem for the American people than dependency upon government safety-net programs which are, after all, our democratic way of sharing responsibility for each other in a free society?  The Mitt Romneys of our business world say people should be independent but do everything in their power to keep them dependent and subservient.

Continue reading →

The Game


This quotation comes from the Atlantic City Press report on the governor’s proposals for change in New Jersey’s educational funding:

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, in an Education Funding Report that accompanied the state aid figures, questioned whether the state investment in its poorest students has paid off, noting the achievement gap that still remains between test scores of low-income and minority students and their more-advantaged peers.

Here’s the political game. Pretend the schools can close the gap created by poverty simply by raising test scores. Give the schools some extra money to raise those scores, pretending all the while that such superficial “success” would actually accomplish something worthwhile. When it doesn’t work (it can’t), blame the schools and say that money won’t cure the problem, thereby implying that the problem lies in the schools and in the poor themselves (your political base already believes both, anyway). Then give the money back to the affluent to strengthen your favor with the base.

Here’s the article.

An Ancient Profile in Courage


Reading about the embarrassing timidity of congressmen fearful of voting their consciences for what they believe to be the good of the American people because doing so might make them vulnerable in the next election has put me in mind of an ancient tale of courage under far harsher circumstances. At stake is not a seat in Congress but the very life of a young woman called upon to stand up for her people.

Esther is Queen of Persia, but she is also a Jew, and the king’s counselor Haman has concocted a plot to destroy the Jews in the land. Mordecai seeks to persuade Esther to intervene with the king on behalf of her people, but under the law if Esther approaches the king without being called, she will be executed, unless the king chooses to extend to her his golden scepter. In the past thirty days, the king has not called for her at all, and so her favor in his eyes seems most uncertain.

Continue reading →

Time to Grow Up Politically


On an educators’ listserv, a man from the UK made this interesting observation about our new American president’s inauguration: “Obama gave such a grown-up speech.” President Obama spoke to this concern himself, with a reference to the Bible, “Let us put aside childish things.” Yes, it is high time for us Americans to return to grown-up political conversation, without name-calling, sound bites, and cheap one-liners. We desperately need to rise above the Rovian “I’m rubber, you’re glue” foolishness of recent years in which politicians play games such as the verbal preemptive strike of accusing one’s opponent of one’s own flaws or repeating the same false accusation over and over until it sticks in the public mind. It’s time to grow up politically in the United States.

The biblical reference comes from the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, specifically from its famous “love chapter” thirteen. Although this chapter may sound like high sentiment to many, it comes rather as a high point in an angry letter to a church divided against itself. The Corinthian congregation has split itself into factions, each of which believes itself the right one, indeed righter than right can be.

Continue reading →