Saturday, November 28, 2015

What's the Matter with Marin?

A recent New York Times article titled "Who Turned my Blue State Red" opens with:
It is one of the central political puzzles of our time: Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. 
The article (referred to hereafter as Blue State Red)  goes through an analysis of who is voting and makes two observations:
  1. The really poor don't vote against their interests - instead, the lowest quintile isn't voting, period.  If they vote it's Democrat, but they don't turn out.
  2. Those one or two rungs up the ladder are reacting against what they perceive as a growing dependency on the safety net.  This is the going red part.
The closing recommendations:  Democrats need to improve the economy (to reduce the need for aid) and run programs better (to reduce the resentment in item 2.)
It's worth paraphrasing the concluding parts of the article to get the flavor of the thinking. 
So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?
For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs…
But it also means reckoning with the other half of the dynamic — finding ways to reduce the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst. One way to do this is to make sure the programs are as tightly administered as possible…
The best way to reduce resentment, though, would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise… If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities — not least by turning out to vote. 
What's the Matter?
Blue State Red has some parallels to the popular 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas?  The problem posed in both is one of low-income people voting "against their interests."  In Kansas, the voters are distracted by social issues.  Blue State Red makes a different statistical argument that (a) the poorest aren't voting and (b) the next economic rungs up are resentful.
My problem with both of these analyses is their framework of analyzing problems in terms of homo economicus - (economic man):  the assumption that one's most important interests are economic.  This resembles the Marxist charge that some economic classes suffer from "false consciousness" - they are fooled and don't see where their "real" interests lie.  Both the bottom quintile and the next rungs up are significant beneficiaries of government programs - why won't they just understand?
But if people "should" vote as homo economicus, what's the matter with Marin?  Marin County - the highest income county in California - is solidly Democratic (in 2012, 74% for Obama  and 80% for Democratic Senator.)  The next two highest income counties, San Francisco and San Mateo, are just as solidly blue.  Why are these well-off people not voting for low-taxation Republicans?  If high-income people can vote for values against their purely economic interests, why don't we grant the same expectation to low income voters?  Are they supposed to be purely economically driven because they have low incomes?  This is either liberal bigotry or condescension - "those people" don't have complicated moral reasoning, or "in their situation, don't they realize that economic considerations should come first."
Democratic theorists can be caricatured as stuck in a materialist mindset - it's all about the goodies.  Look at the recommendations in "Blue State Red":  reduce resentment, fix the programs, get out the lowest quintile vote.  Nothing to see here, folks, move along - just need to tighten the program and fix the false consciousness.  It plays right into the mindset of Romney's 47%.
Instead, I think that the work of Jonathan Haidt is relevant here:  there are multiple foundations  of moral reasoning, but the relative importance attached to these categories varies strongly between liberals and conservatives.  And that in many ways liberals just don't get it.  This is summarized nicely in his 2008 TED talk.  A fundamental point of that talk is that of five foundations, liberals attach primary importance to only two:  harm/care and fairness.  Conservatives attach nearly equal importance to three others, named in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.  Liberals tend to be leery of the latter three, as tools that have been historically used by power structures to maintain control.  But Haidt's observation is the fact that for a large number of people, generally conservative, these moral foundations are very important. 
Take these differences in moral foundations as facts on the ground.  What is someone promoting a liberal program to do?  Here are three approaches of limited utility, although they provide a good source of self-righteousness:
  2. Work harder - more get out the vote drives, more legal challenges to keep programs alive, etc.
  3. Tell the conservatives that they have the wrong value system.  Just stop clinging to their guns and religion.
Instead, the approach from Haidt would be to expand the liberal moral reasoning.  His research suggests that the right cares as much about care and fairness as the left; it's just not their only wavelength.  In this framework, conservative moral reasoning isn't wrong, bit instead more complex.  Communicate to conservatives on the other wavelengths too.   A couple of thoughts:
One source of the authority/respect moral foundation is traditional religion.  Stop being afraid of it.  Stephen Colbert did this brilliantly on the Late Show when he said: 
If you want to know if somebody is Christian, just ask them to complete this sentence: Jesus said ‘I was hungry,’ and you gave me something to eat, ‘I was thirsty,’ and you gave me something to drink, ‘I was a stranger,’ and you… _________”
And if they don’t say ‘welcomed me in,’ they are either a terrorist or they are running for president. 
Colbert casts the entire argument in a different frame - not some dry intellectual point about universal rights, but instead casting it as moral imperative from a great teacher.  Is this a rhetorical trick, a cheap appeal to emotion?  To Socrates, perhaps yes.  But from Haidt, maybe a lot of people don't do their moral reasoning a la Socrates.  Maybe it is a legitimate appeal to how they reach moral conclusions, using a moral authority that works for them.  And this isn't just pandering - there are some great truths from those old dead men, a recognition which is out of favor on the left.
In general, the left tends to have an aversion to religion.  Rightly so in some ways - but by avoiding religious language because of a bad history from many religions, the left has given up a source of powerful language.  One of great rhetorical powers of Dr. Martin Luther King was that he could draw from the justice language of the Bible.  He certainly did not stick to dry intellectual arguments of economic fairness.
Another moral foundation is in-group/loyalty.  When we classify everyone by economic class (or other identity) we have thrown away the power of re-defining the in-group to have larger boundaries.  Our culture has cliché language for identifying with the other - "there but for the grace of God go I."  But we also have powerful religious language.  When asked "who is my neighbor," Jesus draws the circle broadly:  he tells a parable where there the Samaritan - a member of a despised religious group - was the one to actually take care of the mugged traveler.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul says in two different letters,
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one. 
Again, this is powerful stuff that would speak to a large portion of the country.  I think that one could certainly draw on this to re-define groups and loyalty, shifting attitudes by working within a different worldview.
Others might create better examples than the two I give here.  But the point is this:  continuing to ask "what's wrong with group X" reflects an illiteracy in in moral reasoning.  Continuing to make the argument on the same grounds, just "better", starts to look like the insanity of repeating that which doesn't work and expecting different results.  Turning out the vote or incremental decreases in resentment are simply  staying on the same playing field.  Learning the differences in moral reasoning, and shifting to the that ground, could actually lead to changing hearts and minds.  Lasting change only comes about because you have convinced someone, not just because you have beat them in a contest.
Jonathan Haidt
Stephen Colbert, Immigration, 2015-11-19:
Moral Foundation Theory:
Paul of Tarsus

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Remembrance and Appreciation

Alice V., one my high school teachers, passed away recently.  Alice was not in my Pantheon of teachers who provided the Aha! moments or pushed me to deeper thinking, whether in science or humanities.  But on remembering Alice, maybe my Pantheon is missing some members.

I knew Alice, successively, in three different roles - high school guidance counselor, speech team coach, and mother of my high school girlfriend.

Guidance counselors were to be held at arm's length.  After all, they were part of the high school power apparatus, their offices just across the main entrance from the principal and vice-principal's office.  Inspired by other teachers, I had read my Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Communist Manifesto; so in addition to being low-level enforcers of high school order, guidance counselors were preparing us for our future lives of quiet desperation, hopefully as members of the petit bourgeoisie.

In my freshman year a teacher suggested I try out for the speech team.  A couple of older students who were my intellectual idols were on the team, so I started showing up every Thursday night for team practice.  Alice was the head (and often only) coach.  Teams competed in multiple events , such as humorous or dramatic readings, impromptu or extemporaneous speaking, and debate.  Speech meets happened at the other schools in our athletic league, and also large multi-day tournaments sponsored by college debate teams (who did the judging and used the registration fees to pay for own team expenses.)  So as a side-effect, while a high-school freshman I spent time around college environments.

Via a process of benign neglect or just allowing me to get my feet wet, I started competing in the event called humorous interpretation.  This was not a good match.  As many actors have noted, comedy is much tougher than drama.  But after a couple of months, Alice suggested that I pair with another student to compete in "Oxford debate" - pairs against pairs on a fixed subject for the whole school year, randomly assigned to the affirmative or negative side in each round.  We were OK - win some, lose some.

Alice also had me compete in the event called "extemporaneous speaking" - you are given one or more subjects in current events and have 45 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech.  Also a better match than humorous interp, but it meant I had to read U.S. New and World Report cover to cover each week.  I retain the habit, except that now it's The Economist.

At the end of the year, team members with more seniority filled slots in my events at district competition, so Alice placed me in an event in which I never competed:   impromptu speaking.  You receive a list of topics, and immediately speak on one of them for five minutes.  The trick is to choose one topic nearly immediately, but pretend to stare at the list for maybe ten seconds while composing an outline for the speech.  Surprisingly, I took second place and gained a berth to State; and I also gained a new event.

The summer after my sophomore year, Alice encouraged me to go to a two-week  speech summer school at a nearby university, funded by a school-district scholarship.  I was immersed in debate training and long conversations with other students.  When I came back in the fall, I needed a new debate partner - the previous one having graduated from high school.  After a couple of other tries, Alice suggested her daughter Jan.  We dutifully got  together in evenings at my house to work on opening statements, review lines of argument, etc.  But the debating team of Tom and Jan didn't go in exactly the direction that Alice has probably envisioned for it.  Jan and I were in the same grade and had hung out together with other students at school and speech meets.  But during the evenings of sitting together hashing over approaches to debate, I found I really liked her.  We competed rather unsuccessfully in a couple of debates, but we moved from debate partners to girlfriend-boyfriend.  And to me, Alice transitioned to "mother-of-the-girlfriend."  Yes, she was still speech coach, but she (and my parents) became the traditional impediments to the course of true love - limits on telephone time, curfews, and use of the family car.

For the rest of the year, I transitioned to the single opponent event called Lincoln-Douglas debate - one on one with cross-examination.  I did well, making it to quarter-finals at a large college-sponsored event and later qualifying to go to State from my school league.   And the high school romance lasted until partway through our first year of college.

So what about that Pantheon?  Alice was not a fount of rhetorical knowledge or technique.  I did not get any Aha moments from her.  Instead, she was there to facilitate debate practice every Thursday night, and drove a carload of speech students to meets most Fridays, and spent time at big multi-day tourneys herding high school students to and from the college campuses.  She nudged me into events where I excelled.  Maybe my view of Alice was overshadowed by the lens of "mother of the girlfriend," but it may also be that we construct our Pantheons too much from peak experiences.  I am reminded of Paul in 1 Corinthians - there are many different gifts, all important.  Alice's gifts were not of the flashy sort.  She had the gift of being there, for years on end, organizing and facilitating our efforts.  High school speaking competition and the early exposure to a larger intellectual world gave me better thinking, writing, and presentation skills throughout the rest of my life.

Thank you, Alice.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Recently a visiting minister refused to use our standard chalice-lighting song - because she deemed it racist.  The words in question?
Let there be light to drive away the darkness.
Let there be wisdom to shine on the unknown.
Let there be love to heal our aloneness.
Let each of us be a light for one another.
-- Max Landau Moss, UU minister
Can you play "spot the racism?"

The answer:  the first line - "drive away the darkness."   She asserted this to be derogatory to people of color.  Yes.  Really.

This is not my first encounter with such re-readings that place the interpreter in a privileged state of advanced moral sensibility.  We need a word for it, like Stephen Colbert's truthiness.

Humpty Dumpty (in Through the Looking Glass) said, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."  The current practitioners have taken it an Orwellian step further:  "When you use a word it means just what I choose it to mean."

I close with a thought on light and darkness from a different (apparently unenlightened) source:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, in the collected sermons Strength To Love.