Sunday, June 26, 2011

Where Common Sense Lies

About a week ago, John McCumber wrote a piece in the New York Times called “The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy.” What I found most interesting about it was McCumber’s claim that the RAND corporation developed and promoted rational choice philosophy as a weapon in America’s fight against communism.

Rational choice theory’s essential notion is something like this: If an individual wants to buy hot pink lipstick, she will seek the path allowing her to get the most hot pink lipstick for the lowest possible price.

Well, duh.

McCumber makes the claim that such ideas have come to seem like common sense, not because they are obviously true, but because RAND and other government controlled or funded organizations propagandized relentlessly on their behalf until they were accepted as common knowledge. These ideas are among those that “everyone knows” -- even though they’re not true.

Of course rational choice theory is riddled with problems, beginning with the notion that "wanting hot pink lipstick" is a given that itself requires no investigation.

Individualism lies at the heart of rational choice theory and has come to be enshrined in American culture generally. And, not coincidentally, has also provided an enduring philosophical bulwark against Marxism.

According to McCumber, individualism and rational choice theory gradually became the unquestioned “common sense” of American life only because of behind-the-scenes efforts by powerful institutions.

“The overall operation was wildly successful. Once established in universities, rational choice philosophy moved smoothly on the backs of their pupils into the 'real world' of business and government …Today, governments and businesses across the globe simply assume that social reality is merely a set of individuals freely making rational choices.”


“[A]nti-regulation policies are crafted to appeal to the view that government must in no way interfere with Americans’ freedom of choice. Even religions compete in the marketplace of salvation, eager to be chosen by those who, understandably, prefer heaven to hell. Today’s most zealous advocates of individualism, be they on Wall Street or at Tea Parties, invariably forget their origins in a long ago program of government propaganda.”

Individualism, he might have added, is also the premise on which many white people (who have long enjoyed the non-individualistic privileges bestowed on them by racial prejudices) base their claims of “reverse discrimination.”

Without wanting to claim that individual effort has no use or validity, I nonetheless happily cast my lot with those who argue that rational choice theory and the individualism with which it is intertwined are over-promoted in our culture. The result of this over-promotion is a kind of mass ignorance about some of the most important forces shaping our lives.

McCumber describes religions as portrayed as if they operated in a “marketplace of salvation,” yet clearly people do not, as a rule, rationally choose their religious beliefs. Such beliefs are usually instilled in childhood through the force of community and family attachments and accepted without rational testing.

The same could be said for the language one speaks. Those of us who speak English as our first language did not “rationally choose” to do so. English was programmed into us the way software is programmed into a computer. No reason, no choice, and very little individualism.

Granted, we are not automatons flapping our lips meaninglessly or acting mechanically and without individual agency. But we would be a lot better off if we were to recognize the limits of our individual “freedoms,” and the impacts of those forces that so often lift us up or send us crashing downward. Unfortunately, there are still quite a few influential opinion shapers working overtime to keep us from recognizing these limits, and they have succeeded in characterizing those who question individualism as anti-American.

So I'll wrap up with this quote from a pre-twentieth century observer of American single-mindedness:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. – Alexis de Tocqueville


De Tocqeville

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vote Now for the Worst President Ever

Who was the worst president America has ever had to endure? George W. Bush? Maybe. He entered office with a balanced budget and then bankrupted the country by offering huge tax-cut giveaways to the rich and deceiving us into a disastrous war in Iraq. He led the country to the brink of economic collapse, from which President Obama was only able to save us with herculean efforts. The horrors of that economic near ruin continue to cause widespread suffering.

However, my vote for the worst would not go to George W. Bush, but to Richard Milhouse Nixon, the man who made the Bush presidency possible.

Nixon restructured the GOP using “the Southern Strategy,” which exploited the anti-Democrat resentment of racist white conservatives in the South who were angry at Lyndon Johnson for supporting Civil Rights legislation. (I know - not all white southern conservatives are racists, but many are, and in the 1960s, the great majority were.)

For decades these southerners and their ancestors had voted Democrat in election after election, but after Nixon signaled his own solid racist sentiments, they moved into the Republican fold in droves. That’s where they remain to this day, and without their votes, Bush would not have been able to finagle his way into the White House in 2000, or remain there after the 2004 election.

Bush was clearly too ignorant to be a good president, but Nixon was worse than this. He was intelligent enough to be a national leader, but he suffered from internal demons that made him a virtual caricature of an unethical politico. The tapes that recorded his Oval Office conversations reveal a deeply bigoted man, and one for whom ethics were at best a public relations gimmick. One of the most memorable of those quotes took place when he was telling Henry Kissinger that blowing civilians to bits was no concern of his. Kissinger, no angel himself, wanted Nixon to show concern for the civilian deaths his bombing of Vietnam was causing so the world wouldn’t be “mobilized against him as a butcher.”

Here are some samples from the taped conversations:

Nixon: I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
Nixon: No, no, no, I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?...I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.

Nixon: The only place where you and I disagree ... is with regard to the bombing. You're so goddamned concerned about civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care.
Kissinger: I'm concerned about the civilians because I don't want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.

That Henry, always with the public relations.

That Nixon didn’t give a damn about blowing children and other civilians to bits with his heavy-handed bombing is no surprise to those who have studied his character closely. In fact, in other conversations he made clear that one of his main goals in maintaining the Vietnam War, long after Pentagon studies had shown it to be futile, was his interest in getting re-elected by showing he was “tough.”

I think one version of hell for Nixon would be to have him spend eternity talking to the parents and spouses of the people whose lives he threw away in order to show the voters he was “tough.” He could leave hell when he convinced each and every one of them that he had done the right thing.

I’m thinking about Nixon lately because of an article in the Rolling Stone by Tim Dickinson which describes how Fox News is the creation of one of Nixon’s top aides: Roger Ailes. True, Rupert Murdoch is the ultimate owner of the show, but it is Ailes’s spirit that dominates it.

Roger Ailes

Ailes became a political activist largely because of his deep admiration for Richard Nixon. So think of the connection this way: From Nixon to Ailes to Fox. Explains a lot doesn’t it?

The GOP, having abandoned the open-minded liberalism of Abraham Lincoln has, since the 1960s, been “the Party of Nixon.” And now, this party, according to Dickinson’s very convincing article, is bonded to Fox News in a way that no political party has been ever wedded to a news organization (outside of the Communist world).

Fox is known for its unfair and imbalanced “reporting,” and it is known to distort its reporting in order to serve right-wing interests, particularly Republican right-wing interests. What is surprising is that other news organizations don’t make this a story in itself. Fox is to the GOP what Pravda was to the Communist Party of the USSR, and this should be a big, ongoing news story today, but apparently CBS, NBC, CNN, etc., are too intimidated by Fox’s fierce propaganda-making powers to jump on this issue.

Of course, they may feel that reporting on Fox’s fundamentally biased dishonesty could draw more attention and hence more viewers to that propaganda machine. Or they may believe that they themselves will be attacked by Fox as serving partisan Democrats if they were to do so. Such a claim would be false, of course, but Fox is very, very good at getting people to believe things that aren’t true.

Who but Fox, after all, convinced huge numbers of Republicans that Barack Obama is a Muslim, a non-US citizen, and a socialist? Each of these ideas is, frankly, nuts, yet each one is or has been believed by large numbers of Fox viewers.

In a sense, Fox is nothing but a huge, pervasive, ignorance mill. Kind of like those supermarket tabloids that claim, for example, that Elvis Presley is still alive and now rules an Amazon tribe as its king. But unlike these tabloids, which put out nutty ideas in order to make money, Fox peddles its ignorance both to make money and to create an ugly, unethical mindset in the American public. It is, in other words, carrying on the spirit of Richard M. Nixon. Without Nixon’s evil and enduring influence, channeled through Nixon devotee Roger Ailes, it is hard to imagine how any Republican could get elected president these days, given the bizarre nature of the ideas the GOP is promoting.

So is George W. Bush the worst? Or should that epithet go to the late Richard M. Nixon, whose odious spirit lives on through Roger Ailes and Fox News?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Friends with Benefits & Benefits without Friends

Recently I’ve been reading a new book on relationships that raised a number of questions for me, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker. One of the first questions it raised was, “How do you pronounce Uecker?” But never mind about that now.

Mark Regnerus, the senior author, teaches sociology at the University of Texas and has a particular interest in the effects of religion and other ideologies on behavior, so it was no surprise that one of the chapters in Premarital Sex takes a close look at this question. The chapter is titled “Red Sex, Blue Sex: How to Do Sex.”

No wait, that’s the title of a little known, X-rated Dr. Seuss video.

Regnerus and Uecker’s actual chapter title is “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Relationship Norms in a Divided America.” The Red and Blue refer to conservative and liberal attitudes toward sexuality.

R and U offer us a wealth of data on the differences between conservative and liberal ideas about sex, cohabitation, marriage and family. Their focus is on young adults (i.e., 18- to 23-year-olds), and one of their biggest findings is that having or pursuing a college education is a more powerful predictor of behavior than is political ideology. Liberal male collegians, for example, report having had about four sexual partners while liberal non-collegians report twice as many.

For conservative males the ratio is similar:

Politically Conservative Males, Lifetime Sexual Partners
(so far – we’re talking about 18-23-year-olds here)

Collegians 3
Non-collegians 7

Reds and Blues do differ quite a lot in the way they think about their behavior. Both liberals and conservatives cohabit, but for conservatives, cohabitation is usually conceptualized as a step on the way to marriage. It may not actually lead to marriage, but it is important for it to be seen as aimed in that direction rather than as something done for its own sake.

We need a term for belief systems like this that have little impact on behavior. Maybe we could call them “Culture without Consequences.”

I should note here that idealizations based on marriage do have some behavioral consequences. Conservatives, for example, tend to marry younger than do liberals. But in general, the conservative inclination to define sex in relationship to marriage does not prevent them from engaging in pre-marital or non-marital sex. It just inclines them to categorize it as either marriage-oriented or as naughty.

This kind of thinking reminds me of the Marxist notion of False Consciousness: an understanding of social relationships that is misguided but that helps justify the continuation of a given social order.

In America, our biggest chunk of false consciousness is the myth that says social mobility is the norm: “This is the land of opportunity, and if you ain’t getting’ rich, it’s cuz you’re some kinda loser.”

This belief is wrong, though it is widely believed. Marxist false consciousness does, in fact, have real behavioral consequences, as when politicians promote policies based on this false idea.

Back to sex: Regnerus and Uecker spill a good deal of ink outlining the differences between male and female responses to casual sex. They report that women, in general, are more troubled by brief sexual encounters, but there are exceptions. They interviewed both cautious, sensitive males and happily promiscuous females, but these were the exceptions for each gender.

One informant from Rhode Island illustrates a nightmarishly frightening specimen of male irresponsibility. They call him Justin and they quote him at length:

“[I’m in a bad mood because it’s two weeks into the semester and] I still haven’t banged a chick.”

Furthermore, Justin elaborates, “some fucking freshman chick didn’t return my calls last night.”

Justin spends most of his time trying to access alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and sex. He had already decided that the $40 he earned by participating in R and U’s research would be spent on cocaine that he could use to “bang…this grad student …who loves this shit.”

If Justin could change anything about his life, it would be to increase his ability “to get like, more bitches and shit.”

So, what do we make of Justin? I imagine there are some women who would say, “What’s so different about him? I’ve known lots of guys like that.” But I’m inclined to think that he represents an extreme on the male irresponsibility continuum.

OK, so where is the cultural context within which his values are nurtured? People don’t just dream up the things they believe in, they get them from somewhere. In Justin’s case, I suppose he got his from some male-only context (fraternity? locker room?) within which his discourse wouldn’t attract negative attention. But certainly it would be shocking to hear him say these things in a classroom or at a family gathering.

Regnerus and Uecker’s work reminds me of an article that I recently co-authored with Rollins student Kaley Sinclair on the topic of “friends with benefits.” What we found in the interviews on which our piece was based, was the same sort of thing that Regnerus and Uecker found. For one thing, we found that men are more likely than women to find the friends with benefits relationship an acceptable long-term arrangement. But in addition to this, most of the people that described their relationships to us did not depict what we would call “friendships.” Typically the benefits were there, but the friendship was not. In fact, it seemed to us, that if a real friendship existed as the basis for such a relationship, then the relationship would evolve into a more emotionally involved thingamajig. Love, or something like that.

But we are not starry-eyed romantics, and we are not trying to promote any particular life philosophy here. We’re just scientists who happen to find relationships interesting. Like Regnerus and Uecker.

Take it for what it’s worth.