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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Letter to a Canadian Friend

Dale, from his Canadian perch, asked me what is going on in American politics--not just national but local. I took the opportunity to talk to myself about what I must do.

I pointed out that there is still a lot of local church and community based organizing—Alinsky style--going on here. I told him that I am partial to the PICO, IAF, and NPA organizations, but there were many others which are doing their best to put people and common interests above those of the wealthy and dominating interests.

I sent him a list of 1200+ so-callel organizing networks. I noted that most of them are single issued, movement styled organizing projects. And some of them are probably scams. 
The Bernie Sanders movement has tapped into a lot of these but especially the Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Wall Street movements and now the Democracy Awakening and Climate Change movements. I would hope that some good organizing could come out of his campaign, but I doubt it. Obama people tried to move his campaign movement into a sustainable organization, OFA, but it really can’t happen from a electoral party base. In working with Obama's administration at Housing and Urban Development, I clearly saw how party politics really interfered with authentic people politics.  I think my friend Arnie found the same thing working with the Labor Party in England.

I have no doubt that in our time there is a need for partisan electoral politics to advance progressive national and even international agendas. And I am willing to work for Hillary 
(as we did during the Obama campaigns) in Virginia or other areas near us that are in danger of moving to reactionary plutocracy and populist exclusiveness. But I believe that true progressive republicanism can only be sustained by publics—i.e. local community organizing in which people, and especially the working poor, build solidarity and push their common agenda. That means the interplay (and tension) between movement and organization, and also between direct democracy politics and electoral politics. 

I told him that our interaction, when we worked together 40 years ago in Toronto, between the NDP (New Democratic Party) and GRO (Greater Riverdale Organization), was fruitful as long as GRO maintained its self-sufficiency.  That interplay and tension will be necessary until the classless society is achieved—in other words, forever.

Unfortunately, the parties, even the progressive labor parties, like corporations, are fixed on the immediate bottom line, i.e. the next election. And even community organizations (church, labor, nonprofit org based) have to focus on winning short term victories. This is why national and transnational churches, unions, nonprofits need to build and maintain strategic resource and training mechanisms where thinking and acting can move from local to regional issues and beyond while local organizing keeps taking place where ordinary people can experience true civic action and leadership. This is what the IAF, PICO, and NPA are trying to do. Also Midwest Academy, Organize Inc, and others. It is also what we are now trying to set up in Haiti (see our CEN project in Haiti).
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So I guess my counsel to myself is. Keep doing what we can even with the small stuff (e.g. transportation, clean ups, schools, safety issues, housing) but, at the same time, keep pushing to the wider analyses as to why this stuff happens. And use the smaller stuff as ways for people to learn to be engaged citizens of their communities and of their world. 

Look for opportunities to connect to other organizations that are building local power. Tie it to electoral politics locally and then regionally, but don’t get sucked into parties and campaigns. Participate in movements as a way to learn and teach leaders, but keep doing what you can to build local power through collective action around numerous issues. 

Keep trying to spot leaders to prod and support—often by letting them go. And help in anyway we can to strengthen sustainable resource and training capacities. These are the new missionary societies establishing congregations and institutions for social justice and equity.

And above all--keep the faith!


Monday, May 9, 2016

Illusions and American Politics

One of the missions of philosophy and critical thinking is to dispel illusions. I do not mean to disparage illusions. Illusions arise in the very natural way that we interact with each other and our environment. They can be quite useful. They may actually lead us to raise questions about ourselves and our world. But they are useful only when we recognize and acknowledge that they are illusions.

There are four illusions that arise in our thinking that we need to be aware of. I submit that understanding these illusions will give us insight into the craziness of the recent partisan political campaigns and may assist the new political restructuring that so many observers are predicting (though that is perhaps another illusion). The four illusions are 1) the libertarian illusion, 2) the liberal illusion, 3) the dogmatic illusion, and 4) the reality illusion. Let me discuss them one at a time, their positives and their negatives, and show how they might affect our political reasoning and discourse.
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The libertarian illusion: This as I remarked earlier is the illusion of the independent self and free will. Consciousness is the loop back of our behavior to objects in the world. We know from experiment that our brain moves our body to act before we are conscious of that act; and we then rationalize the act as if it came from nothing but our will. We experience ourselves in charge of our activities, oblivious to the background experience of how determined our decisions are by genetics, upbringing, and especially the interaction with others. We feel invincible as the poet says: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." Nice sentiment, but far from the truth.

For the libertarian freedom is lack of restraints, the negation of limits. The individual is a rule unto himself and has no need to rely on others. Nor should he do anything for others since that destroys the others' freedom. Such freedom is the basis of laissez faire capitalism and Darwinian morality. Think Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Many of the captains of the industrial age were libertarians in that they did not recognize governments' role to regulate economic affairs for the sake of the working poor. For the libertarian, the common good is simply the sum of individuals acting on behalf of their own self-interest without interference.

Free will of the independent self is a helpful illusion because it encourages us to take responsibility for our personal acts. It also encourages us to treat others so that they become more responsible self-reliant. As good organizers learn: don't do for others what they can do for themselves. Otherwise you leave them powerless.

But it is an illusion that can be very destructive if used to rationalize the kind of rugged individualism that does not recognize our inter-dependence, our gifts deserving gratitude from parents, mentors, teachers, and society. It is destructive when it rationalizes inequity and blames the less fortunate instead of working with them to change the conditions of oppression.

The liberal (or conservative) illusion: The classic liberal assumes that there are eternal values the ordained by the divine or by nature. And it is the responsibility of Leviathan, whether Tribe, Church or State, to enforce the rules and norms that correspond to those values. In the US liberals are contrasted to conservatives although both share the assumption of natural rights and laws. In many European parliamentary forms of government the liberal party is the conservative party.

The conservative discovers these rights and laws in the past and especially in the great ideas taught by our ancestors. The liberal discovers these rights and laws in a future anticipated by the trajectory of history. Both are subject to the illusion of time as an object out there and of history as divinely or naturally determined as it so seems in our lived consciousness. Both the liberal and the conservative claims to be on history's side. They both believe that there is a key to the portal to progress and they
have it. Both believe that there are correct principles to righteousness and they know what they are.

The illusion is helpful in that it encourages us to consider the role of culture with its values and ideas in shaping our viewpoints and our worlds. This makes reform possible. But it is destructive insofar as it accepts the inevitability of the division of humanity between the endowed and the less endowed as well as the inevitability of progress. It is an illusion that overlooks that culture and history are fabrications of human thinking rather than divinely or naturally ordained. It often overlooks the fact that values and ideas are human artifacts which can lead to the next illusion.

The dogmatic illusion: Often called the illusion of the absolute or the objectivistic fallacy. This illusion arises because in our activity in the world we are focused on things, objects we have named. A rose is a rose by whatever name, as is snow, mountains, dogs, and humans. This attention to the objective neglects the roles our brain, culture, history, and consciousness are playing in shaping the object. We tend to think that the truth is absolute and "out there." Propositions are true when they correspond to the reality we experience as shaped by language and culture. And if you do not experience things the way I do, or the way my tribe or nation or religion does, too bad for you. You are in error.

The illusion is helpful in that it does direct us to the world and to the data we are receiving as we interact with the environment and each other. It is hurtful when it does not uncover the fantasies of myth and leads to ideological thinking without understanding the origins and fallacies of ideological thinking. It confuses beliefs with faith that transcends all beliefs and stimulates critical thinking.

The reality illusion: We are born as naive realists taking everything we see and hear as the way things really are. Though education we begin to understand that conventional thinking or common sense expressed in ordinary language must be continually challenged. Even so we are want to believe
that the truth is out there in the wisdom of the ancient sages, the formulas of science, the authority of
sacred writings and divine revelations. However, presently the new science, accounting for new data through advanced technology, is questioning the classical science of Newton to Einstein.

Contemporary philosophy of science, enlightened by advances in neurosceince, has discovered that our knowledge of nature and of ourselves is mediated by the symbols and tools we use to categorize and relate the data. The holy grail of a unified field theory in which we have the theory of everything, the certainty of truth, and the definitive law of nature is recognized as a fools errand, an impossible dream. This for some might be an occasion to give up the quest and resign to a life without meaning. But for those with faith, it situates truth and good, not at the beginning or end of the journey, but actually in the quest itself. Our reason for life is not to receive meaning from some outside authority or illumination, but rather to creatively and collectively choose and make our meaning.

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These four illusions relate to a structure of human behavior that I, with the help of many of my mentors in science, religion, and philosophy, have described many times elsewhere . That structure I call presence--being here, now, with, towards. It affirms and even celebrates human existence as a tension between inner and outer space, between past and future time, between self and others in community, between belief and faith or transcendence.

The illusions consist in resolving the tensions by a preoccupation with or absorption in one of the poles. So the libertarian reduces community to individual selves. The liberal/conservative reduces transient temporality to paradise in past or future or both. The dogmatist loses the subjective in the objective. The realist reduces becoming to being by denying existence in its ambiguity, contingency, and transcendence.

The reality illusion leads to the great man theory of politics (including the rationalization of

demagoguery or the divine right of rulers) and to authoritarianism and tyranny in practice. The dogmatic illusions leads to fixed ideology, apocalyptic theory, and, in practice, to violent conflict including state terror and counter-terror. The liberal illusion perceives an end to history and progress in the achievement of true values and cultural domination. The libertarian illusion and the theory of the self-made man, the glorification of the individual, and winners and losers leads to the practice of blaming victims and to the horrors of slavery and oppression.

All four illusions reinforce each other. Polarization of parties, withdrawal of people from political life, ordination of autocrats, acceptance of inequity, diminishment of publics and civil society, violence and terror, populist demagoguery born of fear of loss, measuring human happiness by private wealth, all are rooted in these illusions unrecognized as illusions.

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Progressive thinking, at least what I mean by it, is a critical response to all four of these illusions. The illusions will always be there as long as human existence, being-in-and-to-the world, is exercised through symbolic and mediated behavior. However, the true progressive recognizes and so dispels these illusions by seeing them as such.

First let me dispel illusions regarding progressives often held by realists, dogmatists, liberal/conservatives, and libertarians. Progressive does NOT mean:
  • progress is inevitable (the realist illusion)
  • there is a key to progress (the libertarian illusion)
  • history has a side that one is on (the liberal/conservative illusion)
  • there is a fixed norm or measure of progress (the dogmatist illusion)
There is theory, discourse, teaching in progressivism, but it is not fixed doctrine or ideology. It is more a continually revising description of method and a point of view. Its antecedents can be found in pragmatism (James, Dewey, Rorty), existentialism (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre), and phenomenology (Hegel, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), and many postmodern thinkers. It is a method of critique, of uncovering illusions, of the use of satire and irony, of reconstruction, and of agitating thinking.

But most of all progressivism is a practice. personal and political, a way of life and a way of action in the world. Progressives choose to 1) accept the contingency, frailty, and suffering of existence, 2) engage in existence through action despite all evidence of the meaninglessness and futility of existence, 3) relate to others, and especially those who have been left or forced out, and work with them to create a relational world of shared power.

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Perhaps we are a moment of decision (we always are!) towards the reconstruction of our politics beyond the arbitrary boundaries and categories we have established. Perhaps this is a moment in which we can set aside the libertarian blindness to social order in the making of individuals, the liberal fantasy of utopia and conservative romance of paradise, dogmatic righteous ideology, and loss of faith and transcendence by belief in an unchanging nature or mind. I call such a moment a
progressive moment. 


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Anger and Angst in Trumpism

The word Angst has existed since the 8th century, from the Proto-Indo-European root *anghu-, "restraint" from which Old High German angust developed.[5] It is pre-cognate with the Latin angustia, "tensity, tightness" and angor, "choking, clogging"; compare to the Ancient Greek ἄγχω (ankho) "strangle". Wikipedia.
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Many recent news articles are discussing the phenomenon of Trump as stimulating and collecting the anger of American people (especially old white males) many of whom are downsized or outsized, without higher education and so feeling disrespected. These old white angry males (OWAMs) are no longer feeling in control. Even the most unsuccessful of them are used to having at least the blacks, latinos, women, and queers below them. But no longer. Highly educated blacks, latinos, women, and queers are taking positions of power. Consider what allowing women and homosexuals in the organizations of dominance through violence (the military, the corporate board room, the priesthood) must mean to those OWAMs brought up to be real men. 

The ultimate insult was the election of an uppity African American as president. A new insult would be the election of a smart, tough woman, especially a feminist which talks back loudly to men. The masculinity of the OWAMs (dominance as symbolized by John Wayne and Rocky Balboa) is threatened. They fear that they are losing their balls. They want to make America (the old America they romanticize) great again. Being great again means being tough, a man, getting back your balls. Asserting dominance through violence is the way to be masculine whether at home or with other nations.

While I think that this is a largely correct analysis of the OWAM movement behind Trumpism, I realize that the OWAMs that I know would disdain this analysis. They would never admit being racist, sexist, or homophobic. How could they? It would be like admitting that they were afraid and so not manly.


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Anger, anxiety, anguish, and angst all come from the same etymologic root. Psychologists say that anger is related to the fight or flight instinct of the reptilian brain. It occurs when our boundaries are invaded by hostiles and we feel the need to either run to safety or violently push back. That felt need is fear. It is a sense of personal helplessness, the inability to ex-ist (stand out), to be who you want to be, or angst.

But from an astute political organizer's point of view, it is also a sense of powerlessness, the ability to act to make a difference. And an organizer can use and deploy popular anger in two very divergent ways: populism or movement politics and republicanism or community-based politics. Anger for one is turned to blame, for the other it is turned to solidarity.

1. Populism and movement politics. 

This confuses power with force or dominance. It confuses powerlessness with personal helplessness. For a purpose of course. The purpose is personal control and putting people in their place. People feel personal control through the great leader whom they support and who can use force to maintain proper order and dominance. Here anger turns to blame which ironically gives up responsibility. Think of the testosterone rush that those who identified with Stalin in the KGB and with Hitler in the Gestapo felt as they rounded up Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals to maintain the Aryan race. But at the same time they were not responsible. It was the others' fault.

Many observers are comparing Trump with Mussolini who made the trains run on time by his fiat just as Trump will build the Wall, ban Muslims, and deal from strength with foreign leaders. Mussolini could not do this without the support of the masses and the army who saw in him Il Duce, the Great Leader. And so it will be with Trump, the OWAMs trust. Charismatic leadership is a sign of movement politics and authoritarianism is its consequence.

2. Republicanism and community-based politics.

This recognizes power as the ability to act in concert. Power is a collective phenomenon in which persons gain a sense of meaning and belonging through participation in a public, not through identification with a great charismatic leader. Here anger turns to solidarity. A public like a Hamiltonian "faction" is self-organized. It may have very competent and strong leaders, but they are fully accountable to the group. Unlike a Hamiltonian faction, a public is based on more than self-interest but on a sense of common good and so interacts with other publics for the general welfare. 

De Tocqueville saw democracy in America as consisting of free associations or what we call today civil society. Free association and speech are therefore tantamount to democratic republicanism. And the elimination of violence and force as means of achieving or maintaining power. The more we act in concert, the more power we have personally as well as collectively.


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My conclusion as a progressive is that we should recognize the helplessness that the OWAMs are feeling. And to take  their fear as a warning and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to democratic republicanism at the grass roots, locally in our communities, rather than relying on movements that wind up electing our masters no matter how much we identify with them. It also might mean a change in culture, i.e. how we value what it means to be a human, whether masculine, feminine, or transgendered and what norms we choose to define our worth and of those we elect to represent us. I think it also means that politics is more than elections and governance, it is also about taking responsibility for our lives and communities rather than blaming outsiders and others.  

Friday, May 6, 2016

Am I a mindless robot?

So it seems as a new psychological study at Yale describes an experiment that demonstrates that choices are made by the brain which activates the body before we are conscious of them. The rational part of the brain then gives a rational interpretation of the act that occurred before there was any ratiocination.

I read neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (The Ethical Mind, Who's in Charge) and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), and so I am ready to accept that "free will" and even "free won't" are illusions. I have long quit using those concepts as being as useless terms for science as are gods or other supernatural entities and places. That doesn't mean, as I have continually argued, that these concepts are useless in ordinary or poetic speech.

I am prepared to accept that my behavior is influenced, shaped, and even determined by my upbringing and genetic structure, by previous choices, by my interactions with others from the day I was born and before. The habits of my mind or, if you wish, the grooves of my brain which constitute my personality or character are well established. Those who know me well can, with high probability, predict my behavior in certain situations before I am even conscious of it. The talk of willing an act freely (that is without determining restraints) is quite silly for me.

However, I do not believe that talk of "freedom" and "responsibility" and even "culpability" is silly, nor that these are useless concepts even in science. Nor do I think is personality, character, or habits of mind unchangeable or inevitable. These concepts are social constructions, useful in human interaction including friendship, governance, collaboration, education, planning, and thinking itself.

They are concepts that develop as we develop in our interactions. Freedom and responsibility are not things outside space and time. Character and personality are achievements over time in relation to specific spaces to which our organisms are responding. And they are social, collaborative achievements. None of us are totally free (the dogmatic or absolutist illusion). None of us can act without limits and restraints (the libertarian illusion). No one of us can decide the correct attitudes and values that should limit our behavior (the conservative and liberal illusion). But all of us can work together to determine these limits and restraints--progressively over time in common space, based on the vision and values we choose. And the games we decide to play with one another.

Freedom is not a state of being. It is an intention of human interactional existence. I may not be totally free; but I can and do take responsibility for my behavior and ours.

Am I a mindless robot because I do not have free will? First of all, I do have a mind, i.e. am conscious. That is, as Descartes said, beyond doubt. But what that means and how that happens I do not know--yet. I do know that I have a mind because I have a brain that integrates high informational complexity in a single organism and because I interact with many conscious living beings and especially fellow humans with symbolic consciousness.

And while I accept that I am not fully in charge of my behavior, I also accept that we are, and so am I, in charge progressively as we dispel our illusions and think constructively and creatively together. That indeed could be our human prospect. At least I hope so.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Running think

There was no place to respond to a recent New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz "What we think about when we run." So I respond here.

I love to run. I realize that even more now that I cannot run for at least another month due to a healing broken ankle. Running is both meditating and thinking for me (if those are actually different), but much different than the article indicated. Yes, I do think about pace and pain. But not so much. Though the feel of my body warming in the sun, getting wet in drizzle, refreshing in the breeze is always in the background. 

I am a philosopher by profession. Not because I'm paid to be one; but because I profess to be one. So many of the thoughts that pass through my body while running deal with the latest concept I am trying to work out spurred by some book I am reading, some event I witnessed, or some conversation I engaged in. I often deal with the BIG questions: who am I and why, do I/we have a meaning and what is it, what is thinking anyways, what can we know and how, do we have a future, how does our behavior relate to our knowing, i.e.. our science and our politics, what do I believe and how do I deal with my coming death, what is faith and transcendence, and on and on. These are questions whose answers I am always revising.

Thinking is mind talk; and running helps me sort out and confront the talk that is destructive. It puts me on a positive hopeful course, one that has faith in meaning. I plot as I plod. Thus, running is cognitive, as well as corporate, therapy. That's why treadmills and elliptical machines just don't do it for me. I need the world with changing scenery. 

Bernie respects and tolerates my routine of coming back from a run and, after stretching, grabbing my notebook to jot ideas and draw models on pages of reflections. For though I know that I was thinking all through my run, I do not know what I was thinking until I write. And I want to know so that I continue to think. The essays I put on this blog or keep in my notebook are trials (as the word "essay" signifies), daily exercises of a mindful body. 

Thinking like running is both a solitary and communal exercise. I much rather run alone. And even when I run with others, I run alone. Yet I do have others in mind. And so I wind up putting what I have written out there for others without any expectations. 

Both thinking and running have a destination--one that I might attain provisionally, but never finally. I don't plan to run another marathon much less an ultra-marathon. I don't have to because I am always getting there, though in smaller increments as I age. I usually don't think about running, I run to think. And I love it.