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Trump is an aberration. His base is demographically doomed. While we’re ensuring that we defeat them politically, let’s also ensure that we’re not carrying the infection of anger and hatred forward into a future that doesn’t need to be defined by them.

The left and the right both think the other needs to look in the mirror, and on that point, they are both right. What’s more, to an extent greater than either want to admit, they are looking into that mirror when they are looking at each other and just don’t know it.

I know how eager we all are to claim “false equivalency!” And, yes, there is much that is not equivalent. But I’ve noticed for quite some time that, as a general rule, those who are quickest and loudest in shouting that refrain are the ones who have the least justification for doing so; it is the ideologues who fancy themselves most different from their counterparts while being in some very essential ways most alike.

There is less moral hazard in being eager to confront our own fallibility than in being eager to deny it. There is less moral hazard in being willing to acknowledge our opposition’s humanity than in doggedly denying it. We risk less by trying to ratchet down the vitriol than we do by refusing to. A future committed to human decency can’t be achieved through anger and hatred.

The Roman writer Livy said of the Greeks that they had “conquered their rude conquerors,” because though the Roman military captured Greek territory, it was Greek culture that captured Roman minds. We face a reverse problem, threatened by the contagion of vitriol rather than the contagion of more edifying sentiments, and I look at a future in which the left prevails with more trepidation than relief, because the left is growing angrier and meaner and more Intransigent, and that is not the spirit I want to prevail.

So let’s start now trying to be kinder. Let’s oppose the hate without hating. Let’s oppose irrationality with reason rather than another brand of irrationality. Let’s look inward as well as outward. It’s up to us to create and follow a better path. And it’s well within our reach to do so.

A Facebook posting of an audioless YouTube clip of Michelle Obama whispering something into President Obama’s ear during a 9/11 ceremony, the movement of her lips slight and completely indecipherable, with a caption insisting that her unknown and unknowable words were  a comment about the amount of ceremony surrounding the flag, eliciting on the Facebook thread the typical hateful comments about her being “the worst first-lady ever” and “not being a lady.” Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum disdainfully calling President Obama a snob for saying that he would like to see all children go on to higher education, whether college or trade school or technical training. The phenomenon I’ve dubbed “Sharianity”, in which any act of violence committed by any Muslim anywhere in the world is taken as proof that America is being overrun by Sharia law (huh?). The Basal Ganglia of humanity dominating comment boards and Facebook threads.

This is not a right-left issue. Yes, it’s true, the preponderance of the belligerence, especially on the substantive side (see The Basic Political Ideological Grid), comes from the Right, but there is more than enough (especially in the form of how it’s expressed) coming from the Left. And there are both reasonable people of goodwill to be found on the Right, and irrational and belligerent people to be found on the Left.

The real political divide is not between the right and the left, but rather between, on the one hand, people who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that they don’t know all of the answers, and committed to working together with all others willing to do so to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world; and, on the other hand, people who surrender almost completely to their own irrationality and belligerence, attacking any pursuit of knowledge as “snobbery” and any attempt to implement knowledge as “elitism,” eager to vilify all members of all out-groups (e.g., Muslims, Hispanics, Gays, Non-Judeo-Christians and Non-Americans in general) and ostentatiously both wave the flags and crosses of the in-group while subjecting those who don’t to a soft-Inquisition into why they lack the virtue to do so.

But, while the substantive positions of the Right are saturated in this error, the expressed attitudes of many on the left are so as well. To paraphrase and adapt Shakespeare to the current context, “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” is not with those enemies over there, but with ourselves. If the Right turns hatred into planks in a platform, the Left too often turns into a habit of thought and speech directed reflexively against those on the Right. We have to attack the offending ideas more than the people foolish enough to embrace them. And we have to do so even when the offending idea is that those on the Left are pure and good while those on the Right are villains to be vanquished.

I am not shy in my criticisms of right-wing ideology (see, for instance, the essays linked to in the box labeled “Tea Party Political Fundamentalism and Responses To It” at Catalogue of Selected Posts). But I am no less inclined to let left-wing intransigence and belligerence get a free pass (see, for example, many of the essays linked to in the “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). And, despite the incessant attempts to equate this criticism of belligerence to a Pollyanna call for perfect civility and cordiality, a spirit of compromise that assumes and requires that others are reasonable people of goodwill as well, that is not, in fact, what it is. Reason and goodwill do not require passivity, or surrender, or an unwillingness to confront irrationality and belligerence with implaccable resolve. There is a place for strong words and “offensive” analogies (see, e.g., Godwin’s Law, Revisited and Humanity v. Civility), even occasionally for actual violence (such as to prevent a genocide), but only as long as they are done not in service to hatred or anger, but rather in service to a genuine commitment to humanity.

People often aren’t sure how to tell the difference. Here are some guidelines: 1) Those who refuse olive-branches sincerely offered are acting in pettiness rather than in service to humanity; 2) Those who revel in their belligerence are acting in service to anger rather than in service to humanity; 3) Those who vilify individuals more than they critique ideas are acting in service to hatred rather than in service to humanity; 4) Those who are certain that they possess the one, definitive substantive truth that their political enemies just don’t get are acting in service to  hubris rather than in service to humanity; 5) Those who cling to their false certainties rather than commit to processes by which to refine them are acting in service to moral and intellectual laziness rather than in service to humanity.

We can do better. One step toward doing better is for each one of us who is so inclined, each one of us who wants to act more in service to humanity and less in service to pettiness, belligerence, hatred, hubris, and moral and intellectual laziness, to decide to strive to exercise the discipline involved, invest the effort involved, make the commitment involved, to walking the walk as well talking the talk (see The Power of “Walking the Walk”).

Social change starts within each one of us, in the battle to be committed enough to do more than gratify our own emotional need to smite the enemy, in the struggle to be, not perfect, but sincerely committed to making this a better world, a commitment which requires each and every one of us to strive to make ourselves better individuals. Reason and goodwill, sincerely felt and sincerely advocated, are powerful forces, difficult to deny, easy to gravitate toward. All we need do is commit to them more diligently, make them our guiding forces, and act accordingly.

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The notion that it is better to address the root causes of any problem or ailment than merely treat the symptoms may seem obvious to most of us, but it is often neglected and rarely unpackaged. It is relevant in multiple ways on multiple levels to multiple issues. And it forms a pathway toward continuing refinement of both our understandings and our actions.

In my new capacity on the Board of Directors of ClearMinds, Inc., a recently established non-profit dedicated to a more holistic, root-cause oriented approach to mental health care, this distinction is front and center. ClearMinds is the brain child of my friend Dr. Mark Foster and Amy Smith, a mental health services consumer who had testified to Congress several years ago on behalf of legislation favoring the status quo, only later to discover by accident how truly dysfunctional the status quo really is.

Amy’s experience involved an accident which prevented her from taking her medications for several days. She describes the effect as that of having woken up after a long stupor, fully alive again for the first time in many years. Mark’s experience comes from what he has seen in his practice as a family physician, and then discovered through research on his own, a discovery which paralleled that of science writer Robert Whitaker, who wrote Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic, detailing how America’s reliance on antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antianxiety drugs has, far from being the miracle solution to the supposed chemical imbalances at the heart of various psychoses and neuroses, fueled an explosion in the rate and severity of mental health problems in America.

This leads to one interesting thing to note about the search for root causes: If not done honestly, it leads us astray. The conventional wisdom, echoed by many in the mental health care industry, is that we are addressing root causes with these various psychotropic drugs, when in fact we are merely addressing symptoms, and doing so in the most counterproductive of ways. The historical lauding of such drugs as “chemical lobotomies,” supposedly more humane and less intrusive than physical lobotomies, captures the truth perfectly: These drugs dull the mind and reduce the lucidity and vitality of their users.

It may be the case that for certain people, at certain times, such dulling of the mind, such a “chemical lobotomy,” is preferable to the alternative, when one’s mental health problems inflict so much damage on one’s ability to function that even being half-dead is a superior alternative. But story after story emerges of someone who describes the experience of finally getting off their meds, rarely on the advice of their doctor, as that of waking up after a long stupor, discovering a quality of life they had been told was unavailable to them, and enjoying that quality of life thereafter, treating their mental health problems in more balanced and restrained ways. This suggests that, while the judicious use of psychotropic drugs still has a role in a complete mental health care portfolio, we need to be more alert to the preference of not using them when not necessary, and striving to make them in almost all instances a mere temporary foot-in-the-door on the way to establishing a healthier and more life-affirming mental health regime.

Despite the rising awareness of the influence of genetics on personality, it increasingly appears to be the case that mental health is more deeply rooted in social context than in biological interventions after all. The citizens of those countries with strong families and communities but little access to psychotropic pharmaceuticals enjoy far better mental health than we do. While biological factors are undoubtedly in play, the environmental factors are the ones that have the greatest impact on how they affect one’s life.

There are many other areas of life in which this distinction between symptoms and root causes, and the quest for working our way ever deeper into the latter, form a critical challenge for us to meet. This is perhaps most evident in the political sphere, where those most passionate and engaged tend to be most focused on the symptoms of our political deficiencies, and least focused on root causes. Two examples illustrate my point:

The first example is that of eruptions of violence, whether in the form of ordinary violent crime, domestic terrorism, or international terrorism. The latter two are easily understood as a form of political action gone awry, with fanatical organizations or unbalanced individuals pursuing some political end through a misguided and violent means. But all of these forms of violence, I believe, are symptoms of deeper causes, and should be addressed by increased attention to those deeper causes.

After every such violent act, there is always a chorus of voices decrying the act in vengeful tones. Ironically, I consider this reaction to be as much a part of the problem as the act itself, because it forms the sea of anger and hatred from which those cresting waves of violence emerge. The anger and hatred in which so many participate, to so many various degrees and in so many various ways, is, I think, a deeper root cause of the violence than the mere malice or political agendas of the perpetrators of the violence.

There are many, of course, who dig a little deeper, and cite mental instability as a root cause, and even go a bit deeper than that and cite our failure to adequately address mental health issues as a root cause. This points to something I will talk about below: Digging deeper, and recognizing a root cause of a symptom that itself is a symptom of deeper root causes. Because, while recognizing the salience of mental health issues, and of our mental health care policies, as root causes of eruptions of violence are steps in the right direction, I think we can go deeper still, and recognize that our easy recourse to anger and hatred, often treated as harmless and normal in many contexts in which they are non-violently expressed, combined with our ideological tendency toward extreme individualism, is at the heart of both this aspect of our mental health deficiencies, and our failure to address those deficiencies with adequate public policies.

The second example from the political sphere is the distinction between electoral politics and public attitudes. Enormous amounts of energy and passion are devoted to affecting electoral outcomes, and, in the course of doing so, specific public attitudes on specific issues have come to be seen as an important battlefield on which this political struggle is waged. But we address those attitudes as means to an end, seeking the most effective marketing campaigns to affect perceptions on a very superficial and transcient level, mostly ignoring the underlying attitudes that would make people more or less inclined to favor this or that public policy or candidate.

In political debates about political outcomes, the focus is always on political strategies and tactics, but almost never on how we as a society, acting in organized ways, affect how we as a society, diffusely, fundamentally understand the world we live in. I have often said that the real political battlefield is the human mind, and that the greatest long-term investment political activists can make is to nurture an understanding of the world compatible with the policies that they favor.

This distinction between symptoms and root causes is less a dichotomy than a continuum, from the more superficial to the more profound, with the most easily identified root causes of particular symptoms being themselves symptoms of deeper root causes. Therefore, we should never be complacent that we have found the ultimate underlying answer to any question, or the ultimate treatment regime for any disease or social problem. Just as the fictional character Algono found that every solution to every puzzle was itself a part of a subtler puzzle to be solved (see The Wizards’ Eye), we are forever on a path into increasing subtlety of understanding, tracking a world far more complex than any of our models or conceptualizations.

That is why the starting point of all wisdom is the recognition of not knowing. More than any other habit of thought, more than any other virtue, this skepticism, this humility, is at the heart of our ability to grow and improve and do better. With it forever front and center in our consciousness, we can continue to dig ever deeper through the layers of symptoms and root causes, increasing both the subtlety of our understandings and the effectiveness of our practices, increasing our mental health as individuals and our social and economic and cultural and political health as a state, nation, and world. This is the real challenge, and glorious endeavor, of human existence.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The dynamics I described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change applies as much to emotions as to cognitions, as we all know: Kindness and unkindness, love and hate, generosity and selfishness, forgiveness and anger, are all highly contagious, spreading robustly in conflicting, resonating, self-amplifying currents of benevolence and belligerence. The world is full of flame wars and love fests, shouts of “get a room!” and “cage match!” On scales both large and small we cultivate either mutual goodwill or mutual antagonism with every word and gesture.

Indeed, the dynamical, ever-changing social institutional and technological landscape described in the essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts is as much a function of this emotional contagion as it is of the cognitive contagion on which I routinely focus. The two are intertwined, at times mutually reinforcing and at times mutually disrupting, bad attitudes undermining good ideas, and kind emotions concealing callous cognitions. I had discussed this several times, in a different context, in several of the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, such as The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, The Power of “Walking the Walk”, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, and The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2.

In fact, I began to identify the interplay of the substance of our political positions and the form by which they are advocated, in The Basic Political Ideological Grid. But, as I began to indicate in that essay, their integration is more along the pattern described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, two reverberating currents intertwined in complex ways.

I have sometimes written (drawing on the work of economist Robert Frank, among others) that our emotions are our primordial social institutional material, the commitment mechanism that bound us together before we created governments and markets and enforceable contracts; the protoplasm of “norms” diffusely enforced through mutual social approval and disapproval. But even as we have rationalized our society through the ever-increasing domain of hierarchies, markets, (fully developed) norms, and ideologies, this emotional protoplasm is still flowing through that mass of latter developments, of cognitive social institutional material.

Political discourse is commonly more emotional than rational, and, as a consequence, more ideological than methodological (see Ideology v. Methodology). That’s because ideology is the handmaiden of emotion, while methodology is the handmaiden of reason. Since reason has always played, and continues to play, only a marginal instantaneous role in human cognitions and human history (though, somewhat paradoxically, a major long-term role), the dynamics described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change are of a more emotional than rational nature, at least in real time.

And the emotional content counts, as much or more than the rational content. There are those on the left who argue that we need to be angrier, to be more like The Tea Party, which used anger so successfully. But I argue that that is a recipe for becoming The Tea Party, not for countering it, because it is the anger, more than anything else, that makes The Tea Party the scourge that it is. Of course, those who argue in favor of angrier politics are not opposed to the emotional content of The Tea Party, but only the substantive content. They are already adherents of The Politics of Anger, and are spreading the same emotional gospel with a set of alternative substantive hymns.

The robustness of The Tea Party, therefore, is not only to be measured by how many substantive adherents it has attracted, but also by how many people it has inspired to anchor their own politics in anger, because the virus of anger is as much a part of its message as the virus of extreme individualism, the latter carried by the former, or perhaps the former by the latter; it’s always hard to tell.

I could rewrite The Fractal Geometry of Social Change referring to emotional hues and shades rather than cognitive hues and shades, keeping all the rest intact, and it would serve the purpose well. But the final draft would have to combine the two, the emotional and the cognitive, for, to play on Richard Dawkins’ previous play on words, we are not just a story of genes and memes, but also of emes, all braided and blended in complex and mutually reverberating ways.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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Synopsis: Political ideologies do not exist simply on a left-right continuum. To capture the full complexity of political ideological variation, we would need to consider a multidimensional space defined by multiple axes. As a starting point for such a conceptualization, I offer here a two-by-two table defined by one distillation of the left-right dichotomy in terms of substantive beliefs, and a similar distillation of the corresponding dichotomy in form of expression that does not necessarily match the substantive positions.

Cooperatively Expressed Combatively Expressed Cooperative Ideology 1 2 Combative Ideology 3 4

This two-by-two table is, of course, a gross oversimplification, in many ways: The political ideological space is defined by continua rather than simple dichotomies; it is defined by far more than two axes; and there is more nuance and complexity even in these two dichotomies than I am incorporating into them now. But I provide it as a frame of reference to develop and refine. And I want to emphasize that I am using the words “cooperative” and “combative” in broader and more inclusive ways than they are normally used, to incorporate related emotional, attitudinal, and expressive modalities; inclusivity v. exclusivity; and nuances that are not immediately easy to assign to one or the other (e.g., creating a vibrant, competitive market committed to fairness and sustainability is “cooperative” rather than “combative” since it serves everyone’s interests, whereas creating a market rigged or left unregulated in ways that lead to an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and opportunity is “combative” rather than “cooperative” since it is predatory rather than committed to our shared humanity).

Some directly related dichotomies include civility v. belligerence, compassion v. indifference or hatred, strong in-group bias v. tendency toward global humanism, violent v. peaceful, and inclusive v. exclusive (all variations on the same theme). Some more indirectly related dichotomies include rational v. irrational, analytical v. ideological, evolving v. stagnant, predominantly hopeful v. predominantly fearful, and long time horizon v. short time horizon. These dichotomies could define axes in the more elaborate analytical framework alluded to toward the end of this essay.

Though those who identify with the ideology substantively associated with “combative” in this grid are not likely to embrace my characterization of their ideology, keep in mind that I am referring to the ideas and manners of expressing them, rather than to the character of the individuals who serve as vehicles for both. (While there may generally be a strong relationship between individuals’ character, on the one hand, and their ideologies and modes of expression, on the other, they are not always perfectly aligned; what’s in a person’s heart and what underlying emotions motivate them may be very different from both the nature of the ideologies they profess and the nature of their form of expressing them.)

During the many blogosphere discussions on the topic of the postulated (or refuted) possible relationship between, on the one hand, combative political rhetoric and imagery, and, on the other, actual acts of violence (particularly but not exclusively political violence), I found that it’s important to make a distinction between the way we communicate our political ideological convictions, and the substance of those political ideological convictions. In terms of how we communicate our convictions, there is enough vitriol across the spectrum that trying to argue that one side is more guilty than another ends up being more of a distraction than a source of illumination, easily debated and not really very productive.

But when you look at the substance of the political ideologies, you see a clearer distinction: There is a basic competition between, on the one hand, an ideology which almost fetishizes deadly weapons and their use, strongly believes in retributive justice (“revenge”), idolizes the military, vilifies outgroups, and opposes empathy-based social policies; and, on the other hand, an ideology which takes seriously the harm inflicted by deadly weapons, favors restorative justice (prevention, rehabilitation, and compensation for harm done), considers the military the recourse of last resort, recognizes shared humanity with all human beings, and favors proactive policies based on the notion that a society is about lifting one another up rather than knocking one another down. These substantive differences can be understood in many ways, one of which is in terms of a difference in reliance on combative attitudes and combative means.

Now, when you combine this substantive difference with what might be called the expressive similarity among ideologies, you get four basic categories: 1) a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed; 2) a cooperative ideology combatively expressed; 3) a combative ideology cooperatively expressed, and 4) a combative ideology combatively expressed. I would argue that category 1 is the one to which we should all strive to belong, and category 4 is the one which should cause us all the most concern. (Between categories 2 and 3, frankly, I find category 3 more benign: Gun-loving, militaristic extreme individualists arguing their beliefs without rancor and with a modicum of humility and civility are preferable to dogmatic progressives wantonly spitting venom and bile, the latter group being far more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.)

It’s important also to recognize that the substance and the form either mutually reinforce one another, or are mutually inhibiting to one another. So, a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed (i.e., expressed without rage and vitriol) is a powerful message, full of credibility and inherently persuasive, while a cooperative ideology angrily expressed loses credibility, and seems to be a false belief in service to a destructive emotional inclination. Similarly, a combative ideology combatively expressed is particularly frightening, boding ill for society and for people caught in the cross-hairs of that substantive belligerence expressed in belligerent terms, whereas a combative ideology argued by people striving to be reasonable people of goodwill holds the promise of eventually yielding to reason and goodwill, of being dominated by the good nature of the people arguing it rather than by the bad nature of the ideology they are persuaded by.

One important caveat to the desirability of aspiring to the ideal of a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed: a commitment to “civility” (the form of productive discourse) should never trump a commitment to “humanity” (the substance of productive discourse). When the allies invaded the European mainland, for instance, that was very uncivil of them, but also very humane of them, for defeating Nazi Germany was essential to our shared humanity. And there are times when laying bare the irrationality or inhumanity of a position seems impolite, but is essential, in order to create a more powerful narrative that attracts more people.

This model can be refined in various ways. A slightly more elaborate version would be to conceptualize an ideological plane defined by two axes: how substantively combative an ideology is and how combatively it is expressed, representing the dichotomies in this grid as the continua that they in reality are. Further refinement would involve unpackaging what I lump together into “combativeness” here, creating various substantive axes (e.g., “mutual indifference v. mutual support,” “nationalism/tribalism v. humanism,” “retributive v. restorative justice,” “reactive v. proactive,” “collectivism v. individualism,” “dogma v. humility,” etc.). Ultimately, such continuing refinement of this model would involve both broadening the range of independent variables included, and including dependent as well as independent variables (e.g., rates of violent crime, poverty rates, homelessness rates, children’s educational performance, unemployment rates, access to health care and health outcomes, etc.). Such a model would try to explore how changes in independent variables affect changes in dependent variables, using a dynamical systems analysis (the paradigm of which I begin to delineate in the series of posts in the first box on the Catalogue of Selected Posts page).

In some cases, maximizing human welfare requires moving as far as possible along one continuum; in others (such as “collectivism v. individualism”), it involves striking optimal balances in relation to other variables (e.g., economics, morality, social responsibility). But however we conceptualize this political ideological space or these political ideological categories, the challenge remains the same: To continue to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, both in what we are advocating, and in how we advocate it.

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I sometimes hear progressives saying “It’s time for us to get angry; it worked for the Tea Party.” It also defines the Tea Party, and is among the reasons I oppose the Tea Party. I’m not saying that there’s never cause for anger; I’m saying that it should never be allowed to define us.

Instead, we should define ourselves first, and act in the world in service to that ideal, rather than allow ourselves to be defined by our frustrations, by some negative reaction to the world around us. Let others be the chest-thumping mindless apes. Someone has to strive to be the sentient beings, who lead the way toward something better.

What does it take to be sentient beings? A commitment, a desire, a discipline, an endless hunger to grow and aspire and invite and attract others to do the same. Let others thrive on their calls to arms; let’s instead engage in a call to minds. Let’s instead engage in a call to hearts. Let’s instead engage in a call to souls. We have called enough to our baser nature; it’s time to call to our nobler one.

This may be getting repetitive, and for that I apologize. I enjoy, more than anything, to tease out some hidden insight, some novel perspective, some aspect of the dance of nature around and through us that is not obvious, but is worthy of attention. But some things are less delicate, less unfamiliar, but no less worthy of attention for being mundane.

One such thing is our need to move, in as organized and passionate a manner as possible, in the direction of becoming advocates for a discipline that can be more effective, on multiple dimensions, than the sham of activism in which we are, in general, now engaged.

Some may recognize that this isn’t the first time I’ve referred to social institutional shams. I used the phrase “Kabuki Theater” not long ago to describe professional development workshops in public education, which are largely rituals of signifying a commitment to doing better rather than engaging in the actual discipline of doing better. But it is not a defect relegated only to ossified bureaucracies; it is a defect also found in our most passionate social institutional rites. No, the faces are not impassive in the shams of activism, but the results are as hollow.

WE ARE ABLE TO DO BETTER!!!!  I can’t emphasize that enough, or often enough. We can do better. Just as for millenia humanity exercised the power of the mind through the haphazard accumulation of cultural belief systems, finally stumbling upon a methodology that unleashed its powers in phenomenal new ways; just as there was a time when trials by ordeal were all the rage, giving way to systems of law whose procedural discipline seems excessive to those who don’t realize what a triumph it really is; so too can we do better in every sphere of life, in every aspect of our endeavors.

The value of discipline, of methodology, of procedure, is not a new discovery; it has been a hallmark of spiritual and philosophical schools throughout history. The quest for nirvana may seem trite today, but it is no less compelling, no less authentic, than it was two and a half thousand years ago. It is, in essence, some shade of nirvana that we seek, some spiritual success realized through our own ability to tame our egos and realize our full potential in the process.

We do not necessarily have to sit in the lotus position and chant “om mani padme hum” to be, in essence, exercising a discipline that liberates the human spirit. We can, instead, escape the illusion of activism that is blindly invested in a superficial cycle, the endless trials by ordeal, of changing leadership and representation, and embrace in its place the realization of an activism that is more profound, more effective, and more compelling.

I have already sketched out what that discipline looks like (see, e.g., A Proposal, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Foundational Progressive Agenda“A Theory of Justice”The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & WithoutThe Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). But words are cheap, and acting on them is essential. To those who are already involved in this effort (e.g., “the coffee party”), let’s form bridges among our groups, form new groups, draw in new members, link to groups that are somewhat different in nature (e.g., Kiwanas,Rotary, church groups, HOAs, PTAs, park districts, school districts, everyone who is organized to do good works of any kind), trying to transcend rather than deepen the ideological divides, trying to create common ground rather than merely to smite enemies (and by doing so ensure that they remain enemies), building more hubs and spokes in expanding social networks all coalescing around the will to do better.

There are those who are quick to say that the opposition is not reasonable, and that trying to reason with them is the mistake that they are so angry about. And I say, the world is subtler than that. I do not argue that there is no place for hardball politics; I only argue that not every place is that place. I do not argue that there are not irrational and intransigent ideologues opposed to progress; I only argue that not everyone across the ideological divide is such a person. The real political battle has always been, and remains, the battle over the middle, over those who are not raging ideologues, over those who can be swayed. Such people are not swayed, but rather are repulsed, by raging ideology. While the Tea Party may seem to have been successful by trying to sway them with contorted faces and angry slogans, what they really did was to coalesce a base, and alienate the middle, at exactly the same time that many on the left thought that the smartest thing to do would be to alienate the middle as well, and thus lose the opportunity to be the only attractive political force left.

Obama won not because there was a huge mandate for expansive government, but rather because there was a huge mandate for hope and reason. Not everyone defines those virtues in the same way, and not everyone stayed on board as the policies themselves involved more government involvement than they were comfortable with. But hope and reason, not rage, are the truly attractive forces, the ones that attract not those who are already full of rage, but rather those who are not and don’t want to be.

So let’s recover that force, that momentum, that Obama unleashed in 2008. Let’s recover a commitment to hope and reason. Let’s agree to be slower to refute and quicker to consider; let’s agree to strive to find the words and attitude that resonate with those who can be swayed. Let’s agree to be reasonable, and humble, people of goodwill, working together to do the best we can. And let’s make that an attractive place to be. Real, and sustainable, progress depends on it.

Contact me, here or by other channels, if you’d like to be a part of an effort to organize along these lines. All reasonable people of goodwill have a responsibility to work as hard at turning this vision into a reality as others, all across the political spectrum, work at obstructing it.

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I’m angry too.

I’m angry at those who try to obstruct improvement of the human condition, and at those who obstruct improvement of the human condition while trying to facilitate it. I’m angry at both those who lack any sense of responsibility to one another, and those who lack any sense of how to satisfy that responsibility to one another. I’m angry at those progressives among us who try to turn every meeting into a group therapy session, focused on how mad they are that their imperfect certainties of the world are not being adequately realized by the candidates that they supported. I’m angry at hubris, and inflexibility, and attempts to impose the noise and obstruction of false certainties on a system already clogged with noise and obstructions of all kinds. I’m angry at folly, littered liberally across the ideological spectrum.

I’m angry at those who believe that progressive activism should consist entirely of trying to impose one’s own will on government, and not at all of trying to inform the will that is being imposed. I’m angry at those who believe that if they are convinced that something must be, then making it so must be good. I’m angry at those who think a straight line is the best path to all destinations, even if the destination cannot be reached by it.

I’m angry at those whose self-indulgent and unproductive anger drives productive people away, dominating discourse and derailing progress. I’m angry at those progressives who are essentially the same as Tea Partiers, only filling in the blanks of the same Mad-lib differently; who are political fundamentalists of another shade, characterized by the same attitude, adamant and inflexible, impermeable to new information, content to be absolutely certain of inevitably imperfect understandings. I’m angry at those who respond to the intentional obstruction of progress with the unintentional obstruction of progress, forming an implicit alliance with those they purport to oppose. I’m angry with those who adhere to and reinforce the cycle of blindly ideological opposition rather than striving to transcend it, as would serve an authentic progressive movement.

I’m angry at those who think that unproductive bitching is the epitome of political activism, and that attempts to plan and execute efforts to actually affect the political and ideological landscape are distractions from their “substantive work.” I’m angry at people who combine working to get favored candidates elected with anger that those candidates consistently disappoint them, or anger that fellow progressives made other choices, while doing nothing to assist those candidates in their efforts to persuade constituents who are not in agreement. I’m angry with people who think elections are the breadth and depth of politics, and that all challenges are met by winning them, though even they constantly observe that the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

I’m angry with people who completely ignore the importance of creating a context which facilitates what we want our elected officials to do. I’m angry with people who don’t understand that getting progressives elected and re-elected is just the most superficial layer of the political challenge we face, and that unless we address the layers beneath it, we will be both less successful at achieving that superficial layer, and less successful at making such success, when it comes, conducive to the ends we had in mind when pursuing it.

I’m angry at those who don’t understand that electoral politics is just the beginning of the challenge; that the rest involves more, not less, responsibility on our part. And the tragedy is that too few people undertake that more essential responsibility.

I’m angry at people who take pride in a passionate commitment to change things for the better that is being squandered in ways which are more emotionally gratifying than effective, and, if anything, actually contribute more to ensuring that things won’t change for the better than that they will. I’m angry when these people speak for the progressive movement, attempt to ostracize and disinvite those who aren’t like them in order better to wallow with fellow travelers in an ecstasy of complete ineffectiveness.

But I’m not angry about the possibilities that lie beyond their fortifications, that can attract larger numbers of more able souls. I’m not angry, but rather am hopeful, that there are many who are silent, put-off, disgusted, and alienated by the combination of arrogance, ignorance, anger, and intransigence that characterizes many of the most vocal lay participants, of all ideological stripes, in our political process. I’m hopeful that a different kind of progressive movement, a more pragmatic but  more robust and effective progressive movement, can attract the vast silent majority, who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, and seek only a sign directing them to where reason and goodwill reside.

I’m hopeful that those of us so inclined will be able to find and create venues in which tackling the real challenges we face, that are ours to tackle, is considered the proper focus of our efforts rather than a distraction from them. I’m hopeful that there are those who want to work with some degree of humility to do our part, on the ground, to improve the quality of life in this state, nation, and world, both by affecting government, and by affecting the context within which it operates.

Scott Kimball’s possible connection to the murder for which Tim Masters was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16352864) is another reminder of a simple but underrecognized fact of life: Every act has rippling repercussions throughout the fabric of our social field. Whoever murdered Peggy Hattrick didn’t commit an act whose sole consequence was to deprive an individual of her life, nor even one whose sole consequence was that plus the infliction of grief on all those who cared about her. It’s an act which also contributed to all of the consequences of that grief, and the consequences of those consequences, reverberating through our tightly intertwined and far-reaching social networks. It’s an act which also deprived Tim Masters of 18 years of his life, and which raised awareness of the problem of completely avoidable wrongful convictions.

And Tim Masters’ choice to draw disturbing teen age pictures of sex and violence, though in no way a criminal act, had consequences beyond their being seen by others and embarrassing the “artist,” consequences which converged with some of those of the murder itself. The same is true for every kind or unkind, wise or unwise, selfish or generous word or deed, of magnitudes large and small. There are many such words and deeds which contributed to the creation of Scott Kimball and others like him, ones which were considered completely innocent by those who indulged in them. Violence isn’t just a crime committed by some (though it is that as well), but also a cumulative collective phenomenon contributed to in small ways by many. It is the responsibility of each of us to absorb and transform those ripples which contribute to it, sending out instead ripples which contribute to something more positive.

Bill Clinton recommended that voters not let their anger over the sluggish economy cloud their judgment (http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_16352734). I recommend that voters allow their anger over the sluggish economy to focus their judgment on those who are responsible for it: the Republicans. People forget that when Barack Obama took office, we were teetering on the edge of the abyss of a Great-Depression-scale economic meltdown, not merely looking at years of slow-to-no growth and high unemployment. We averted that impending disaster by the bold policies that the Right has succeeded in vilifying in the minds of those who are not overly concerned with facts and logic, an impending disaster that was the direct consequence of Republican policies and priorities (particularly underregulation of the financial sector, something whose consequences had long been foreseen).

“Governor Tancredo” is a real possibility (http://www.denverpost.com/election2010/ci_16352450), and one which would be to Colorado what blunt force trauma is to a human brain: We might survive, but impaired and possibly crippled.

At a leadership panel at Arapahoe Community College a couple of days ago, one of the panelists paraphrased a Lone Tree library official regarding Colorado ballot initiatives 60, 61, and 101: They define a policy that is like slowly amputating one’s limbs to lose weight. I’ve used a similar (though less picturesque) metaphor to describe extreme anti-tax fiscal policy in general (such as that which has come to dominate Colorado, to our great harm): It’s like trying to impose weight loss by forced continual starvation.

The emphasis on transportation at the same panel of local government heads stuck a chord. Our transportation system is an economic circulatory system, moving nutrients and oxygen from where they come into the system to where they are needed (more precisely, since the economic analogue to a “digestive system” is more decentralized than the anatomical referent, the economic circulatory system moves nutrients around among particularized decentralized points of entry, helping to ensure that all parts are fully nourished). Overreliance on cars is like a high cholestoral diet, causing a clogging of the arteries (in the somewhat literal sense of gridlock, with resulting increased pollution and decreased productivity; as well as in the broader sense of  the more general dysfunctionalities of overreliance on cars).

Tiny Crawford CO’s love for it’s altruistic health care provider but scorn for the legislation that will allow her to continue to practice  (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16352526) is a wonderful illustration of the disconnect between blind ideological beliefs and judgments, and real human preferences and desires. The ideal would be for us all to ask, “if I didn’t know what my own circumstances in life would be (race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, sexual preference, congenital physical condition and appearance, etc.), and I had to design a set of policies based on my self-interest prior to the lottery of birth, what would it be?” Second to that in preferability would be for each to vigorously seek his or her own self-interest based on a high volume of reliable information and well-reasoned analyses. Worst of all is what the Tea Party are their fellow travelers are trying to impose on us: Vigorous pursuit of an irrational set of ideological beliefs and judgments which don’t even serve the real interests of those pursuing them.

As for the “terrible” Health Reform Act itself, it’s funneling $19 million to Colorado to expand health clinics that serve the poor, unemployed, and uninsured, in a very definitive step in the right direction for this country.

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Some recent on-line interactions, and many that came before, have brought home the importance of addressing the role that anger plays in political discourse. There are many dimensions to the problem (and I do see it as a problem), involving both empathy and narcissism, fragile egos and legitimate concerns.

First, a disclaimer: I do not consider myself either immune to or innocent of the expression of anger in political discourse. This is not one of those political divides with some people on one side and some on the other, but rather one in which aspects of each of us can be found on either side of the divide, with some individuals more to one side than the other.

This is not a problem that belongs exclusively to one ideological camp or another: Within the last week, I’ve been angrily lambasted by two ideologues, one on the left and one on the right, cascades of enraged pejoratives issuing forth from each, each upset with me for disputing their respective highly combative certainties. The problem, as I repeatedly tried to tell them both, isn’t the ideology, but the attitude. It may be that the attitude correlates more strongly with one ideology or another, but that is not the relevant point; rather, the attitude, wherever it occurs, is toxic, and far more of an obstruction to progress than the substance of any particular ideology.

Still, there are legitimate questions involved: Is anger ever useful? Does it ever serve an indispensible political or social function, motivating people who would otherwise be unable to motivate themselves, or disincentivizing behaviors that are on the wrong side of such reactions? If so, to what extent and under what circumstances? Is anger ever the best possible reaction? Or is it sometimes the best attainable reaction, even if not the best imaginable? Or is it simply dysfunctional, in all circumstances?

A moderate, reasonable poster on a Facebook thread where the angry left-wing ideologue tried to convince Democrats not to vote for Democratic candidates in protest of their not being pure enough for him, gently praised his anger, while opposing his call to inaction. She viewed his anger as a productive, motivating force, putting the feet of the powerful to the fire. This may be the case sometimes, but I think it is grossly exaggerated, and more often an excuse for engaging in something for the most part dysfunctional.

First, we exaggerate the degree to which our public officials are “the other,” serving their own interests at our expense. While there is certainly some of that, I think it is far more often the case that our public officials are sincerely dedicated to some view of what produces the greatest public good, and are passionately working in service to that agenda. More often than not, public service involves accepting a salary well below one’s earning potential (though there are arguably much larger long-term financial benefits), and certainly far more public scrutiny and constraint of personal liberty and personal space than adheres to work in the private sector, or in lower-profile positions. Some of this is off-set by the honor involved, by the prestige conferred, but being an elected official is not an unambiguous boon for those who successfully pursue that path.

Second, the ideological certainties that spark inter- or intra-partisan public anger with elected officials, on average, are wrong more often than they are right (I am not including anger over alleged ethical breaches, which is not the issue here). If we assume, generously, that in interpartisan disputes, one side is on balance wrong and one side is on balance right in any given instance (it may often be the case that both sides are on balance wrong, though it is almost impossible for both sides to be on balance right), then the split between false certainties and justified outrage would be about 50-50. But the intraparty ideological disputes reduce the portion of those who are “right” into some balance of those who are right and those who are wrong once again, leaving significantly more than 50% of the individual instances of angry certainty in the wrong on the substance of the matter (even disregarding the disutility of the form, in those instances in which individuals are in the right on the substance of the matter).

So, if we all employ righteous anger on behalf of those positions we are each absolutely certain are the right positions to advocate, more righteous anger, on average, is being deployed on behalf of positions erroneously held than on behalf of well-founded ones. The Czech author Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, captured both this, and the more general dysfunctionality of anger even when right, by putting in the mouth of his main character, observing an angry protest in Paris, “Don’t they understand that the raised fists are the problem?”

I’ve argued in another post (The Foundational Progressive Agenda: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=317) that humility is the necessary cure for this defect in our discourse: We have to each strive to recognize, especially in matters that are contested by large segments of our society, that, in any given instance, what we are certain is true may not be, and that by each admitting that, we open up greater opportunities to approach, together, understandings that are closer to the truth.

The perennial counterargument to this, of course, is “but they’re not willing to do this, so by doing so unilaterally, we only weaken ourselves.” I don’t believe that this is accurate (of course, I may be wrong! :)); I believe that those who argue with the most reason, goodwill, and humility are, in the long-run, the most attractive to the persuadable majority, and provide the best and most useful contrast to the unmovable ideological zealots who have almost always dominated public discourse.

What anger does is to divide and entrench us, to divert more of our energies to non-productive conflict and away from productive efforts to serve human needs. The inevitable conflict over how best to govern ourselves, in general and particular, serves us best when it is least rancorous, and most rational. The commitment to striving to be reasonable, humble people of goodwill is the cornerstone of such constructive public discourse. Anger, both within and without, is our common enemy.

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