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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dear Cousin Vinnie

Dear Cousin Vinnie,

We have argued a lot about politics and the future of our country. But I write this to say that I am sorry if I have been reactive to you in any way. I now believe that I understand you and your position much better and I want to respect both.

I am actually very grateful to you. I talk with many who would call themselves conservative and I have read and respect the conservative tradition in Anglo-American politics. But because of you I am in touch with a different kind of conservative which identifies with the new right in American politics. While I read materials by people who associate themselves with the Tea Party, Fox News, and so-called conservative talk shows, and watch them compete for political office, I seldom have a chance to discuss with them.

You know that my lifelong vocation has been community organizing, that is, pulling together people especially those who have been left out of political and economic power. This means people take responsibility for each other which often means struggling together against government and corporation policies and practices that hold them back. We have fought for fair housing, better air and water, educational opportunities, full employment, living wages, community services, and fairer progressive taxation. Saul Alinsky, who was one of my mentors, claimed that community organizing is a conservative enterprise because it builds on and supports traditional organizations, like families, churches, voluntary associations, to achieve a free and open society. Admittedly that is a very different notion of "conservative" than that of the new right.

My avocation is social ethics as part of a philosophy of mind in dialogue with neuroscience. In order to inform my ethics and politics, I read, write, and teach about how our brains have evolved to adapt to our environment through thinking, language, arts, sciences and other symbolic behaviors.

Recently I have been reading and thinking a lot about the brain and culture. One book, Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel, shows the genetic basis and evolutionary advantage of culture in humans. He  teaches that just as genes construct and use the organism (the genotype) to perpetuate themselves, so "memes" (words, symbols, models, images, produced by the brain for survival) form and use culture to perpetuate themselves. Another book, Brain and Culture by Bruce Wexler, shows that our brains are not just wired for culture, but also by culture.

When a member of our race (homo sapiens) is born, the brain has not yet stopped growing; this is why the first months of birth are so important. An infant that is not held, loved, smiled at and talked to, directed to things in the world, or is otherwise isolated will be extremely developmentally disabled. And even after those first months, the brain is still forming by acquiring language. But those synapses of the brain get routinized; and this is why, after the age of seven or eight, it becomes increasingly difficult to acquire a new language. The plasticity of the brain goes on as long as there is life; but by the age of 25 or so the brain is pretty much stuck in its ways--including its mores, belief systems, symbolic forms, attitudes and habits of behavior.

With its language, religion, narratives, values, belief systems, the culture into which we are born and reared actually molds our brains in certain ways. And in our culture-wired brains, we see and appreciate our world, we decide good and evil, we choose behaviors that we think are appropriate, and we interpret "facts.". (I am talking about humans with "normal" development, not humans that have been brain injured or deprived from human contact and assistance.)

Another thing that Wexler points out is that in its interaction with culture, the brain achieves an internal structure that is adaptable to the patterns of the cultural environment. That internal-external comfort gets stressed when a person is pushed into a new environment, e.g. by migration, by abduction, by changing times, and by being confronted with new cultures. This is the source of tremendous friction that expresses itself non-violently through denial or separation, or violently through attack on the opposing culture including its belief systems, symbols, and language. The Taliban destroying the great ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan, the building of cathedrals on the site of former mosques or vice versa, mass deportations, and even genocide arise from this conflict of cultures.

You and I are the same age and so born during WWII and raised in the US in the Post War era--the 1940s and 50s. We were shaped by much of the same culture. I bet you played guns, just as I did in Detroit. We fought Japs and Nazis, watched cowboys shoot Indians, lived in all white neighborhoods, and went to Catholic schools where we knew the authority of priests and nuns. In the Eisenhower 50s, according to Will Herberg, there were three ways of being American: Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. This was different than the earlier part of the 20th century when Catholics and Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Ireland, were not considered real Americans by White Anglo Saxon Protestants and lived in their own ghettos. As many historians have documented, those immigrants at first were not white, but had to become so--no matter the complexion of their skin.

But WWII and its aftermath changed all that. The development of highways and suburbs opened to all upwardly mobile white people--some of them fleeing the African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Appalachians newly immigrating into the older parts of the city. I was raised in an all "white" (Jewish and Catholic with a few mainline Protestants) neighborhood and went to an all white school and church. (I never knew how that happened, and just accepted it as normal, until I went to school and work in Chicago.)

I don't know about your family life. My father was a Republican but more in the line of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Dewey, and Rockefeller--what many of your affiliates would call a RINO today. He was the first in his family to go to college (Marquette University) where he studied humanities and journalism. I like to think that that is why, even though he had his opinions which became stronger has he climbed to management in General Motors, he always encouraged dissent and other ways of thinking on my part. I felt appreciated and honored when he would deem to argue with me. Always respectfully.

He would playfully joke with my mother who grew up a Democrat and especially appreciated the New Deal with Social Security and government conservation job programs because she saw what the depression did to her family. (BTW way she got quite conservative in her old age, but mainly about churchy things.) My father respected the UAW with which he dealt with often and successfully. He also worked closely with government by first changing GM plants to make tanks and amphibians--and then changing back after the war to the tremendous boom that all that government spending caused in the economy, including the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the Social Security Act, the Highway's Act, and FHA, Public Housing, and the GSAs.

He was the first plant manager to find and promote a black man to foreman taking some heat for that from his bosses in Detroit whom he did not warn because they would have thought that it was too soon for that. He was a member of the Catholic Council for Racial Justice and strongly supported the Civil Rights Act, Voters Rights, and affirmative action. I also like to think that was because he went to a Jesuit university where he learned Catholic Social Teaching. We lived in a Jesuit--university affiliated parish. I went to a Jesuit high school and entered the Jesuit seminary where I got my fill of the humanities, science, and critical thinking.

As I say, I do not know enough about your family upbringing, but I suppose that you and I were nurtured very differently. So our brains are wired quite differently. We have very different values, religions, belief systems by which we see the world, by which we ascertain our "facts," and by which we choose our politics. And even in later life our experiences tend to nail down our opinions. For instance, you have a much different experience of labor unions and government regulation than my Dad or I had. Different frames, narratives, metaphors, even questions are in our heads.

We totally disagree on the treatment of immigrants and refugees, on affirmative action in housing and education, on universal health insurance, on government jobs programs. And that disagreement is not bad. It is part of the democratic republican system of American politics. Thanks to you I recently read a Republican fundraising appeal that accuses Obama of creating division in America among races, classes, and parties. The same day I read a Democratic fundraising appeal accusing the Republican Congress of dividing the country. Well, my response to both is that division and confrontation are not necessarily bad. Lincoln was accused of dividing the nation. So were Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, and Martin Luther King.

I know why you dislike unions, why you want to minimize government, and why you want to stop providing benefits to the working poor including housing and health care. You see your image of America crumbling. It is no longer the America of the 50s, of white Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, ready to stabilize the world militarily and fight the enemy that competes with our hegemony.

Traditional institutions like male mastery, sexual difference, Judeo-Christian ascendency, unregulated market economy, Caucasian majority, American exceptionalism, and military might are threatened.  Science and liberal education are undermining absolutes in religion and morality. This is frightening to you. And fear provokes anger at those threatening what you hold dear. Those include me who supports gay marriage, gun-control, limitation of American military reach, citizenship for new immigrants who desire it, multiculturalism, diverse religious expressions (including Islam and atheism), regulated markets, redistribution of wealth towards equity, women's control of their bodies, reparations to the descendants of slavery and Jim Crow through affirmative action, family leave and early childhood education, government accountability to the working poor instead of the super wealthy, collective action to limit the damage being done to the planet, and free education and health care.

I know you would vehemently oppose this "socialist" platform. This doesn't mean that either one of us is evil or stupid. I would hope that we can agree to disagree without name-calling or being disrespectful. I totally disagreed with George Bush on his decision to invade Iraq and on his taxation policy which did not pay for that war. I agreed with him on his immigration and prescription drug policies. I disagreed with Clinton on his welfare reform without full employment and his deregulation of the banks. But I reject the hate or disrespect that would make fun of pissing on a picture of any president or calling him Satan or traitor. Naming, blaming, and demonizing to me is a sign of weakness--but I see how it arises from the fear and anger of those old, white, men who see their nation and their ideals being destroyed.

I also realize that your fear, your discomfort with where our country and the world is going, and your expressed pessimism is grounded in a reality. It is your reality, not mine. But it makes me think. It cautions me to be less sure of myself and my own reality. I too am very disappointed by our elected leaders, including the president, who let partisan considerations trump effective action. But instead of blaming them, I want to take responsibility for what I can do in my own community to hold them accountable. I too want to limit government intrusion into privacy and I want government to support, not reduce, personal responsibility including work. My thoughts and positions are also born of my own way of seeing the world based on the frames, narratives, values, and beliefs which I have acquired. I need to challenge and constantly rethink them.

You are trying to hold on to something valuable. I need to acknowledge that and discover those values which I too share--like personal responsibility, local self-determination, freedom from government or corporate control. I truly believe that beyond our different cultures, we do share a common nature. That all persons have dignity and a "spark of the divine," a common cause and destiny that transcend all our formulations and positions. I think it is discovered in our capacity to think which involves listening, empathy, respect, mindfulness, and collaboration with one another and the recognition that we are all in this world together.

I also believe that while we are largely determined by our genes and memes, by nature and culture, we have the ability to progressively free ourselves from the determination of nature and culture by thinking, by questioning ourselves and our positions and by searching with others, especially those by whom we are most challenged, for a more universal viewpoint and shared positions. So the conversation among differing viewpoints and positions is vital. But when we stereotype, bad-name, and demonize persons the conversation ends. Relationships are broken.

So let's not do that. No more.

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