Gotcha Emails: Give Her a Break

Gotcha Emails: Give Her a Break

How many reasons do you need to give Hillary Clinton a break on the hacked email dumps that regularly befall her? The second dump happened last week; it showed questionable connections between State Department staff and The Clinton Foundation when Hillary Clinton was SOSOTUS. The first release at the start of the Democratic National Convention cost Debbie Wassermann Shultz her job as head of the DNC because she was caught colluding against Bernie Sanders and favoring Hillary’s candidacy for POTUS. More dumps are promised.

I’ve compiled a list of ten reasons to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt on past and future email droppings:

  1. The emails were collected by felonious means and it isn’t known yet who the criminals are. The consensus among cracker-jack hackers is that Russians did the job, likely involving the state intelligence gathering apparatus, with authorization from that old KGB hand, President Vladimir Putin himself.
  2. If it were money, jewelry, or art masterpieces that had been stolen, the booty would be stored under lock and key until the criminals are arrested and brought to trial. Release of the documents to the public doesn’t absolve the criminals of the crime. Their release is neither an act of altruism nor of good citizenship.
  3. Conspiracy theories should be avoided like the plague. As a person who aims to be guided by sense experience, reason, data, and logic, my moral character could be damaged by engaging in wild surmises about Donald Trump’s admiration for Putin, his call for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s computers, the consultant work of Paul Manafort, Trump’s Campaign Manager, for Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine, who later absconded to Russia in disgrace, and Trump’s delegitimizing comments on NATO. No, I refuse to go there! I advise you to avoid conspiracy mongering too.  Hillary Clinton’s life shouldn’t be conspiracy mongered either.
  4. Bill Clinton served as President of the United States for eight years and has made The Clinton Foundation his life’s work since leaving office. His wife Hillary has served as Senator from New York and Secretary of State during his days at The Clinton Foundation. One would expect regular email traffic between husband and wife in their separate offices, and communications between members of their staff would be expected too. Email linkages between the two organizations are in no way discredited by the frequency of mail.
  5. Emails, in gross batch, are inevitably and inherently discrediting! Try collecting yours for a couple of years, give the swarm to me, allow me to damage my moral character by letting my far fetching imagination run wild, and I’ll get you in trouble with someone. A relative recently told me she had been receiving unsolicited partner recommendations from Match dot com. She didn’t have an account, but got the match notices anyway. Was someone jesting her? Imagine what the Hillary critics could make of that if it had happened to her. The store of daily emails, let’s face it, is a virtual swirling cesspool. Most of my email, and probably yours, is unsolicited and eclectic.
  6. Powerlessness to prevent odd, unsolicited mail is just one problem. Emails are inherently discrediting in another way. They have a backstage, behind-the-scene, character. Emails are ways of getting work done in organizations. In the same way that the Wizard’s credibility in Oz is lost once Dorothy and the little group of tourists get behind the curtain, emails take us into the bowels of the organization where the machinery is running and the grubby work is done.The organization’s public face— idealized in slogans, logos, architecture, decor, mission statements and luminous advertisements—is discreditable by goings-on in the interstices of the interior. Emails reveal the inwards of an organization. Note that no one is doing anything really wrong. It’s only that events in offices and on work floors contradict expectations, are deviations from the virtues breezily claimed in advertisements! Claims to idealization and perfection cause the problem
  7. Employees everywhere routinely create scenes of potential embarrassment and shame, by coming late, leaving early, calling friends, putting down colleagues, playing favorites, nepotism, dipping into supplies, playing games, scheming, hoaxing and joking, telling untruths, and cutting corners. People at work are embarrassment time bombs! Workers are supposed to be virtuous as a corporate family in terms of fairness, hard work, honesty, loyalty, teamwork and compliance with policies and procedures. But then, who among us doesn’t recognize the hilarious happenings in workplace comedies such as Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock? Emails reveal people when they are off-stage, out of sight. and being direct and honest. They may be doing nothing wrong, nothing that you or I wouldn’t do, but workaday events can diminish them, create the wrong impression, and embarrass the company.
  8. Since writing letters is personal and undertaken alone, emails feel personal and private. We forget that employers and sponsors own the system and have the right to look at their content. The emails are corporate property. You may think you’re writing in private, but you’re actually writing for all eternity. This is true on both private and public computer servers, and on smart phones too. Also, we now know, emails are spectacularly hacker friendly. Until the public character of emails becomes clarified, as it surely has become for Hillary Clinton, let’s give her and other people the benefit of the doubt.
  9. Batches of emails inspected, one by one, by unnamed, faceless government officials, and redacted for national security reasons, tend to be accompanied by a peculiar scent familiar to readers of the files kept by the STASI in soviet East Germany. To have such a file kept about you is damning in and of itself. Where there is smoke, there must be fire.
  10. Issues of morality and self-understanding make the personal privacy argument particularly cogent. I, in all fairness, must ask myself: Who am I being when I read someone else’s emails? I sense that I’m being inappropriate, some kind of sneak! The emails are hers, not mine. I see it clearly now. If the emails are personal and private, and come from the hidden bowels of an organization, and that organization spends big bucks and posts police and guard dogs to prevent entry to the offices from which these letters originate, then I am acting like a criminal intruder at worst, and a voyeur, peeping Tom at best! I don’t want to be either of those types. Shouldn’t legislator voyeurs feel a little doubt and shame too?

Well then, who are those legislators being who have dwelled for so long on Hillary Clinton’s email cache through multiple, unending investigations by Congress, and who salivate even today over James Comey’s notes from a completed FBI investigation in which Hillary was exonerated of criminal intent and actions. They surely, at the very least, are conspiracy minded, voyeuristic, home-invading, privacy destroying, peeping toms, allies of criminals, and unforgiving violators of The Golden Rule. Oh, they are surely something else too, politicians trying to destroy the reputation of a candidate and win a dirty election.

That’s what they do. Don’t be like them. Prize your integrity.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 17, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Vote to Break Political Gridlock

Vote to Break Political Gridlock

As I write this morning, August 1, 2016, Donald J. Trump, the Republican Party Nominee for President of the United States, is mired in a demeaning spat with both parents of a Gold Star family, and is accused of unknowingly advancing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests in the Ukraine and the Baltic states through ignorance and by questioning our NATO obligations. A week earlier, Wikileaks had released 19,000 emails and attachments hacked from the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) just before that party’s national convention. Apparently the aim was to embarrass the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Russian Intelligence agencies had turned out to be involved in the hack. At midweek, Trump called upon Russia (in sarcasm he now says) to hack into his opponent’s computers to find a batch of supposedly missing emails.

I’m dumbstruck by these happenings. The movie, The Manchurian Candidate comes unwittingly to mind. What’s going on? There are still 100 days until the election. For my own sanity I need to take stock of the campaign and note a few important things. I need to orient myself for the days ahead. Maybe you do too.

* * * * *

I like to write, but have not attempted history. Think about the problems that brave historians will have in writing the history of this labyrinthian election. How can they do it? For instance, read the paragraph I just wrote about happenings in one week, last week, and notice all the important events I didn’t mention. I didn’t describe the convention at all. I didn’t report the firing of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I didn’t describe the great speeches, some of which, like Michele Obama’s, will warrant books of their own. I didn’t mention that Senator Tim Kaine, of Virginia, was selected as the Vice-Presidential candidate, or that his son, a US Marine is on his way for service in the Baltics. I didn’t mention that his Republican counterpart in the Republican Party, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, is also the father of a Marine on active duty. I didn’t even describe the consequential speech in which Khizr Khan, with his wife Ghazala at his side, the parents of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who gave his life for his country in Iraq in 2004, called out Mr. Trump at the convention for his lack of knowledge of the Constitution and his lack of personal sacrifice. This event alone will inspire hundreds of books and may turn out to be the determining event in the election.

* * * * *

Answer quickly. When did Rand Paul run for President? When I asked this of a relative, she answered 2008, possibly confusing Rand, the Senator from Kentucky, with his father Ron, the Representative from Texas who ran twice for the office.

The answer is 2015-2016. Rand ran for President in this election! Doesn’t it seem eons ago since he and the other sixteen Republican candidates dropped out? Doesn’t this campaign feel interminable?

Here’s the thing: modern media technology and the pseudo-event of the ”twenty-four hour news cycle” causes the sense of longevity and interminability. Significant campaign events occur daily, and hourly, thus requiring that the “day” be used as the primary category for data collection. Not only is news happening hourly within the daily news cycle, but so are the responses to those events, which are “news” too. Daily news is increasing exponentially. News is now approaching a virtual limit of Twitter speed.

* * * * *

Due to the warp speed character of politics, participants run a risk of being turned unwittingly into fools and objects of ridicule. It’s a trend. Here is one small example:

  • On November 8, 2015, Joseph McQuaid, Publisher of the The Union Leader in Manchester, New Hampshire announces the paper’s endorsement of Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey.
  • On December 15, 2015 McQuaid publishes an editorial entitled Trump Campaign Insults NH Voters’ Intelligence. He calls Trump a “bully” and compares him to Biff in the movie Back to the Future.
  • On December 28, Donald Trump retorts by calling newspaper Publisher McQuaid a ‘lowlife’ and assails Chris Christie.
  • On February 26, 2016 Governor Christie drops his campaign and endorses Donald Trump, his “great friend.”

McQuaid is left holding the bag, and looks like a fool, and so does Christie. Note that the historian can do the same analysis with Ben Carson, who we thought was an evangelical Christian and a hard right conservative until he endorsed Trump.

By July 2016, at the Republican convention, Christie is holding a witchcraft trial of Hillary Clinton, calling her a liar and evoking “Lock her up” retorts from the feverish audience!

* * * * *

Who knows what will happen next in this campaign? Nobody does. Anything could. As of today, August 2, the pundits are reporting Clinton’s poll numbers are such (5 points over Trump) that Trump will have to carry Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida in order to have any chance to win. On this same day, the Trump campaign is floating the rumor that the election is “rigged” against him, thus appearing to delegitimate the election should he lose. He sounds like he’s expecting to lose.

* * * * *

I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter, and am hopeful she will win. She should if only because her opponent, Donald Trump, has turned himself into such a grotesque figure and national security risk. It’s going to be a torturous 99 days.

Males will be a problem for Clinton. Wary males will be able to employ every variety of clever sexist trick to diminish the candidate. My wife Beverly and I sent the following email complaint to the PBS Newshour on July 30 protesting the Brooks and Shields critique of the Clinton acceptance speech:

Dear Newshour,

We strongly disagree with Shields and Brooks’ assessment of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, and in particular their disappointment and even blame (“She had the chance”) of failing to emotionally connect with the audience. The two of them have been pointing to this  presumed failing over and over throughout the campaign, (along with her supposed lack of vision and problems with truth-telling), and they set up the audience for disappointment in advance by saying how vital self disclosure is going to be in the speech.

Four points:

1. We don’t feel any such need for deeper knowledge of Clinton’s soul and being.  We are 79 years of age and know her as well as we need to. She is obviously trustworthy in every way that counts, and super competent.

2. It was a great speech, especially because she spoke earnestly, forcefully, and directly, and laid out an inspiring vision of a confident, purposeful, caring America, without deceiving herself that poetical flourishes were required.

3. The commentators failed to note the powerful central claim and metaphor of the speech—that she will bring a mother’s love, commitment, care, and diligence to the presidency. She showed plenty of self-disclosure and passion about that.

4. Women and mothers got that message, but your guys did not.

We love David and Mark’s commentary. We listen to them every Friday. Their remarks are almost always helpful and informative. But when it comes to Hillary, they are not wise fatherly gurus, but rather, to paraphrase the Tammy Wynette classic, (Stand by your Man), “because, after all, they are just men.”

Male attitudes are going to be the largest problem of this campaign. Male attitudes are likely to lead to everything from schoolyard bullying, teasing, name calling, and witchcraft trials to unfavorable comparisons to Pericles, Napoleon, Lincoln, and the Founding Fathers. We hope the Newshour can avoid participating in the worst scenes of the coming Inquisition.

Warm regards,

* * * * *

Here is the big thing to bring front and center, the really “huge” fact, to borrow an adjective, nobody knows yet whether the state of gridlock in Congress will be broken by this election. That’s the remaining question to be answered by this election, and the issue we all should be asking our Representatives and Senators.

Here are five interesting facts:

  • The conservative movement that started with Barry Goldwater, peaked with President Reagan, and led to gridlock in the Obama presidency lost big to Donald Trump in this election. His followers didn’t care about the Conservative agenda. Trump defeated every conservative candidate.
  • Trumps dark, angry, fearmongering campaign allowed the Democratic Party at its convention to grab seven or eight of the traditional themes of the Republican party: patriotism, pride in the military, simple virtues, religious belief, self-reliance, voluntarism, cooperation, a can do attitude, and hope for the future.
  • The Republican Party has been gutted of its values by Trump and faces the excruciating question of deciding whether to repudiate its own nominee.
  • Both parties have already changed hugely in this election.
  • Yet, when the election is over, the Republican legislators, under the leadership of Paul Ryan in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, are prepared‚ as of right now, to resume all of the practices that have held the nation in gridlock for eight years. Notice that Judge Garland has received no hearing. Look at Speaker Ryan’s announced agenda for next year.

No matter what happens in the election, the nation is in big trouble if political gridlock continues.

* * * * *

Must Donald Trump be defeated? Absolutely. He wants to be a dictator. If the Republicans dislike President Obama’s executive orders, just imagine what Donald Trump’s dictates would be like.

But with Trump beaten and Hillary Clinton in the White House, the question Americans need to get answered is whether her proposed jobs bill can be negotiated, moved through Congress, and signed into law so that the nation’s infrastructure can be rebuilt and the work and workers involved can give a needed boost to the economy. Has the country had enough of gridlock, sequestrations, budget blackmail, and government shutdowns? That’s the key question for the future.

Make your vote count. Make your vote contingent on a new spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Ask candidates about that possibility and their willingness to cooperate. Both parties have failed us and yet both are changing fast. This is an excellent chance to renew ourselves and to work together as Americans again.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 2, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Boom Bust Boom – The Documentary

Boom Bust Boom – The Documentary

If in your seniority you hanker to acquaint your grandchildren with the eternal truths of economics and Monty Python, and with the clever arts of animation, puppetry, music scoring, storyboarding, illustration, and documentary filmmaking, round up the little kinfolk of middle school age and older for a viewing of Boom Bust Boom co-written by Python luminary Terry Jones and economics professor Theo Kocken. Jones co-directs the film with his son Bill and  Ben Timlett. The film is produced by Bill and Ben Productions. Terry Jones also directed The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. He is a very funny man, and clever and street smart too.

The film deals with the recurrent busts that have followed booms in the history of capitalism, as illustrated within modern memory by the crash and “Great Depression” of 1929 and the bursting of the subprime housing mortgage “bubble” in 2008. At the very least your viewers will understand what happened in 1929 and 2008 after seeing the film. Check out the trailer.

Neoclassical Economics, the approach to economics whose acolytes dominate the graduate schools and universities, teaches that busts need not happen; they are aberrations. Rational actors, each pursuing their own interests in self-regulating markets, as described by Adam Smith, steered by the policies of John Maynard Keynes, and advocated by the likes of Milton Friedman and Allen Greenspan, prevent busts from happening, unless government managers are stupid enough to screw things up. States of the market are in this view portraits of collective rationality.

The alternative view, represented in the film by the insights of the neglected, but prescient, economist Hyman Minsky, says that the tranquility of economic stability leads to undue exuberance, unwise speculation, and debt-fueled booms, followed by inevitable busts. That’s part of capitalism. This is human nature. We are irrational as well as rational economic actors. The unfettered market is not guided by divine authority or by amalgamated rationality. (In one striking scene, a group of graduate students in economics at the University of Manchester is petitioning the faculty to teach economics as a human science applicable to what actually happens in the real world, such as the debacle of 2008. They say their faculty of neoclassical economists has given them little understanding of such events.)

I love the fast pace of the documentary. Lots of interesting and relevant information is efficiently and cleverly presented. Here are examples:

  • Animated reconstructions of Tulip Mania in Amsterdam of the 1630s and the South Sea stock bubble in London of 1720 are used to show that economic follies repeat themselves. The sub-prime housing bubble of 2008 had the same dynamics as these disasters, nothing new there.
  • Reenactments of the State of the Union addresses of Calvin Coolidge and George W. Bush in 1928 and 2006, respectively, confidently assuring the public of the health and stability of the economy; the two Presidents obviously had no idea of what was about to happen.
  • A puppet conveys Hyman Minsky’s hard won wisdom on economic bubbles and human nature to his son Alan, who helpfully appears in person (as an actor in the film) to prove to his puppet Dad that, yes, he gets the message.
  • Terry Jones regularly jumps in front of, or even into animations, illustrations, television blips and other scenes to helpfully maître d’ the action.
  • Laurie Santos, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale, on site at her monkey observation lair off Guadaloupe explains her finding that monkeys share with us a couple of irrational economic habits from 35 million years ago that get us into big trouble, including booms and bubbles!
  • Several animated bank scenes show mortgage lenders and customer reps making deals with customers and relieving them of their money.
  • Scads of scholars, mostly economists, including three Nobel Prize recipients, interject cogent facts and pithy truths into the discussion. The luminaries include Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, George Magnus, Zvi Bodie, Paul Mason, John Cassidy, Steven Kinsella, Daniel Kahneman, Robert J. Shiller and Paul Krugman.
  • The wisdom of the influential mid-twentieth century economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, (author of The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967), Harvard Professor and Kennedy administration Ambassador to India, is intoned by a puppet who sounds even more pompous than was the man himself. That is hard to achieve.
  • Important professional secrets are shared. Allen Greenspan, the highly regarded Chairman of the Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006 is shown confessing to a congressional committee that his neoclassical model of the economy was wrong.
  • Even the actor John Cusack, who, I guess, is something of a scholar on the subject, offers occasional insights and insults.
  • Clever songs are written, adapted, and fashioned for the documentary, much in the spirit of the familiar Monty Python classics. You should be able to reconstruct in your head the finale: an animated chorus of exuberant characters singing “I’m forever blowing bubbles!”

The only thing missing in the film is a cameo by John Cleese and the other Pythons. But it’s not necessary. It’s an excellent piece of art in its own right and your grandchildren will thereafter to be skeptical consumers of the profession of economics. That’s a benefit of which grandparents can be proud. So choose the night, extend the invitation, and buy the popcorn.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

July 12, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Selfie and Self

Selfie and Self

Introduction

This is the second of two essays on Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, first published over a half-century ago, in 1962. The first piece, published last month, explained the pseudo-event concept and pointed to its ongoing relevance in a world where Boorstin’s observations have proved prescient. This second article addresses issues of personal-identity associated with the advent of the smart phone. The smart phone, one of the most powerful tools in history, arrived and was adopted at warp speed. Nothing I will say here about pseudo-events recommends its disuse. At the same time, the implications for person and society are significant.

There is nothing inherent in pseudo-events that make them good or bad, destructive or constructive, realistic or unrealistic, apt or useless. Some are, some aren’t, and there are continuums. Americans want, like, and enjoy pseudo-events. I like my iPhone and depend on my computer; I couldn’t last the morning without them. I take selfies too. In general, we’re talking about the psychological and social consequences of technological progress.

What then is Boorstin concerned about in highlighting the emergence of pseudo-events? His eye is focused on how pseudo-events mislead, how they befog, how they control, how they delude, and the consequences for people and nations. We deceive ourselves by them. Culture consists mainly of pseudo-events that stick as habits and govern consciousness. Boorstin is giving us eyeglasses to mark and measure the distance we’ve moved away from the ordinary, from nature, and from the basic facts of life. In short, his book, and essays such as this one, can help people see more clearly and think better, thus enabling better personal decisions. They help in undeceiving ourselves.

The iPhone has been around only since the summer of 2007, less than nine years. It and other smart phones allow users to speedily jump into innumerable pseudo-events. These include a phone call, a voice mail, an exchange of text messages, an exchange of emails, a taking and sharing of images and videos, a shopping excursion, an information search, a fact check, a loan calculation, a bill payment, a ticket purchase, reupping a library book, an imaginary trip to Barbados, a war game, a virtual visit with friends on social media, and of course, the mother of all pseudo-events, the “selfie.” And that’s just the start of the event generation possibilities. Virtual events through smart phones are infinite. The whole world is in our hands.

The Selfie

The ‘selfie’ represents a cultural shift in the history of selfhood and personal identity. To be specific, the ownership of the photographer role changes. Where previously another person took your picture, now you take your own. The implications are dramatic:

  • The “I”-“me” dialogue by which we silently talk to our “selves” requires the “I” to externalize itself into the place of the photographer, and undertake his decision-making process from that point of view.
  • Who is this photographer? What are his allegiances? That won’t rouble everyone, but it could trouble some, the sensitive conflicted few..
  • The “I” has to scan extant and probable social situations, evaluating prospects for honor and shame. Likewise, images of oneself have to be assessed for risks and rewards. Are these acceptable representations of “me?” Consequences can be anticipated. Payoffs can be imagined.
  • Because a multitude of possible scenarios could be photographed, and a throng of media friends are ready to view the posted image, and because I may not be looking my best today, and I’m unlikely to get the bad flicks returned later, the situation can be intense, bothersome, and anxiety provoking.
  • Once out there in the world of social media, the selfie image, like any published product, may survive for eternity, and, as we all know, today’s leisure suit can transform its wearer overnight into tomorrow’s prototype of the fashion dork.
  • Selfies, given the passage of time over years and decades are likely to be consequential in unforeseeable ways, and are potentially regrettable.
  • In the immediate future, after “sharing” a selfie, who knows what comments about the image will return to the sender, and worse, who knows what mean comments will be made about you? Or, from what monsters they will come from the creepy depths of the swamp? Who even knows who will see it?
  • We can be hard on ourselves—unfriendly, angry, accusatory, judgmental. The “I” can get depressed about what it sees as the inadequate “me.” Suicide shows that in the bleakest cases the “I” can turn into the worst enemy the “me” ever had.
  • Much of the threat to selfhood and personal identity stems back to the computer, Internet, and point and shoot camera eras. The smart phone pushes the peril closer to the top, to the verge of danger. Time expended on line—in gaming, electronic chats, videos, and the like—can take up scads of solitude previously available for inward experience and social development.
  • Incessant picture taking can lead to an unhealthy concern for and fear of others, and a devaluing of one’s opinions in relation to the opinions of peers. A paranoia may develop of being watched, surveilled, and filmed. Depression may ensue.
  • Anxiety can go off the chart. A recent Supercuts commercial is instructive. A young woman, in her twenties or early thirties—who knows for sure; faking exact age is a demand and art form of consumer culture— is going to Supercuts, because, the voice over artist assures us, “she wants to be ready.” This is followed by a quick panorama of her in a plethora of feature haircuts, as seen in a variety of desired situations— dances, dates, work scenes,etc., including a selfie. Wow, is that the same person?. We are assured at the end that she’ll “jump back” into Supercuts, as may we, whenever she’s feeling or we’re feeling “not ready.” The image of the person “ready” for action with a new haircut masks the anxiety that the commercial presumes and brilliantly reveals.

Our world seems less capable of developing confident, integrated selves than it once was. Divided, split. fractured, dueling selves are more likely. Schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder are ascendent.

Conclusion

The selfie, and other pseudo-events considered normal in today’s electronic culture, threaten personal identity and selfhood in multiple ways.

  • It transforms private identity into a series of external public images.
  • It transforms a lively person into a static image.
  • It convinces the person that the number of images that can be taken are limitless—thousands after thousands. It’s routine to take selfies. Go ahead, take as many as you want. Everybody does.
  • It is addictive. One can get hooked on it.
  • It teaches narcissism.
  • The person may find later that her real self—the unique self she knows herself to be—is missing in all of the images taken of her.even the ones taken by herself. Great pictures. You may think I look great, but that’s not me. Appearance is not reality.
  • It downplays the value of internal experience and a private sense of self.
  • It introduces an obligation to share images with people you don’t really know and who don’t know you. This is done under the bizarre claim that acquaintances held at alms length on the streets make swell bosom friends on a computer. They don’t. They are pixels on a screen, pseudo-event friends.
  • It collapses geologic space into nonexistence. The viewer is anywhere, say in China, and the selfie taker is in New York. They are nowhere together in the same virtual space.
  • It collapses actual time into simultaneity. The picture shows up in China within seconds of it’s shooting in New York. It’s virtually timeless.
  • it creates a passive, pseudo world where  participants spin weavings and webs endlessly on line while each is home alone at the computer.

The smart phone and “selfie” are great, we tell ourselves, and they really are, but when we highlight their virtues the obvious is overlooked: they are unfriendly to personal identity. A person would be wise to look for an integrated and positive sense of self though other methods and means.

Afternote

For those looking for additional reading, I recommend Jacob Weinberg’s We Are Hopelessly Hooked, in the New York Review of Books, (February 25, 2016): 6-9. In it Weinberg reviews four books whose titles clearly convey their authors’s concerns. Two are by Sherry Turkle: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penquin); and, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books). The others are Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. (MIT Press), and Hooked: How to Build Habit Building Products, by Nir Eval with Ryan Hoover (Portfolio).

Will Callender, Jr. ©

April 12, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

The Reality of Pseudo-Events

The Reality of Pseudo-Events

Introduction

Daniel J. Boorstin, American historian and twelfth Librarian of the Congress of the United States, authored a book in 1961 entitled The Image: Or, What Happened to the American Dream. I read the book in 1992 when the 25th year anniversary edition came out, with the addition of an Afterword by George F. Will, the conservative columnist for the Washington Post. That version carried a new sub-title, continued in the 50th year edition and editions thereafter. The official title is now The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

The change of sub-title suggests two things: 1.) that the pseudo-event concept had proven so powerful as to deserve highlighting, and, 2.) that Boorstin might have been ever so slightly confused about the thrust and import of his book. The implications of the work are bedazzling, with consequences beyond those he or any reader could have foreseen. There is almost too much light, and too much truth. By its end a conflicted reader isn’t quite sure whether “The American Dream” has been saved or lost, or whether the country or the citizen should change. It’s quite a charm, and this from a book whose examples are drawn from the Eisenhower years and earlier. The book has never been more prescient and useful than now. I urge readers to get a copy, and also to gift the book to their kin. You’ll be giving them a good set of eyeglasses, a language translator, mapping tools, a travel guide, and a valuable history lesson. George Will’s enthusiasm suggests that liberals, conservatives, and freethinkers all will benefit. Boorstin, who gave us The Landmark History of the American People, The Discoverers, and The Creators has obvious sympathy and deep concern for his fellow Americans, shown by his frequent invocation of “we” and other collective pronouns.

Here is how Boorstin introduces the book:

In this book I describe the world of our making, how we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life. I recount historical forces which have given us this unprecedented opportunity to deceive ourselves and to befog our experience. (3.)

He follows up with:

We want and we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. (3.)

That’s his thesis in a nutshell. We’re victimized by our own excessive expectations, powered by our wealth, technology, and dynamism, and thereby inclined to convert daily living into ‘pseudo-events,’ replacing nature and ordinary life with befogging illusions.

l offer two entries on the book. The second, to be published in three weeks, takes up the issue of personal identity, and whether pseudo-events are changing the way we think of ourselves. The aim of this one is to explicate Boorstin’s notion of the pseudo event as a tool in tracking the news, particularly in following the scintillating events of the presidential election. The book is primarily, but not exclusively, a story about news making, how news became, step by step, the amazing phenomena we know today. He takes us back before the invention of the telegraph when a sleepy consensus existed that “nothing much happens around here,” and that the unexpected, were it to happen, would likely be an “act of God.” Living in rural America was ordinary, natural, and slow, boring to the many who would want more excitement. That would be most Americans. News would happen, of course, but not so often as to build a life or a day around it.

It is important to understand that the word ‘pseudo’ in pseudo-event means ‘contrived’ in contrast to ‘natural,’ not ‘false’ in contrast to ‘real.’ Pseudo-events are real enough; they actually happen, literally all the time. But they are contrivances. Such events have several properties:

  1. They are contrived (or planned or arranged or designed or drawn up or schemed) for some personal or group purpose.
  2.  They are timed (or placed or planted or staged) so as to
    become news, i.e. to be observed, recorded, written about,
    shot, filmed, videotaped, reported, and shown to the public.
  3.  Their meaning is ambiguous rather than clear. Meaning is open
    to interpretation, analysis, interest, and ongoing comment; the story will likely lead to more news.
  4. They tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies, bringing forth in reality the purpose and result they presumed, hid, sought, and forecast.
  5. In today’s photographic world, pseudo-events, when reported as news—embellished with photographs and videos—tend to acquire or cohere into an iconic visual image, a take-away picture of how the event is to be envisioned, recalled, and remembered.

Boorstin cites as an example a case reported by Edward Bernays, a founder of the new field of ‘Public Relations,’ in his 1923 classic Crystallizing Public Opinion. In this case, which I have embellished for effect, a public relations advisor is hired by a hotel to advise management on how to increase hotel stays, sales, and profit. They had been losing money. After study, the consultant advises them to stage a celebration of the hotel’s 30th anniversary in business. A committee is formed, dates are chosen, events are held, with the blessings of city officials and with dignitaries in attendance, all gloriously covered by the press before, during, and after the occasion. The hotel thrives as a result. Reservations and sales skyrocket. The hotel achieves a new image. The ‘celebration,’ as you can see, is contrived, newsworthy, ambiguous (no reference to money and future sales), and self-fulfilling. Today we would say that the pseudo-event successfully marketed the Hotel’s ‘brand,’ and new ‘image.’

With this background, examples can be given of inventions of pseudo-events that transformed news-making into the dynamic endeavor we know today. These are just a start;  the historical list of inventions on which news depends would be interminably long.

  • Ways of fashioning news: ’news flash,’ ‘news release,’ ‘news blurb,’ ’news briefing,’ ‘news digest,’ ‘news conference,’ ‘news blog,’ ‘news recap,’ ‘news retraction,’ etc.
  • Ways of organizing news: ‘news organization,’ ’newspaper,’ ‘news magazine,’ ‘news journal,’ ‘television news,’ ‘The Newshour,’ ‘cable news network,’ etc.
  •  Roles and professions for gathering and distributing news: ‘paperboy,’ ‘copy-editor,’ ‘pressman,’ ’newsman,’ ‘reporter,’ ‘journalist,’ ‘embedded reporter,’ ’photographer,’ ‘publisher,’ ’commentator,’ ‘news anchor,’ ‘communications advisor,’ public relations consultant,’ ‘graphic designer,’ ‘press secretary,’ ’travel editor,’ etc.
  • Practices and techniques for gaining news: ‘the tip,’ ‘the informer,’ ‘the hunch,’ ’the interview,’ ‘the credible source,’ ‘the expert comment,’ ‘the opinion poll,’ ‘the investigation,’ ‘the research project,’ ’the photo shoot,’ ‘the photo-op,’ ‘the assignment,’ ‘the field trip,’ ‘the special edition,’ ’the debate,’ etc.

Practice Exercise

You might ask what isn’t a pseudo-event? Good question. They are everywhere and they multiply exponentially. We’re swimming in them! As a quickie practice exercise, spin out the pseudo-events associated with the event known as winning a national football championship. If the assignment is restricted to the professional level, we have, just to get you started, the ‘AFC,’ the ‘NFC,’ the ‘NFL,’ the ‘division championships,’ the ‘conference championships,’ the NFL championship as ‘Super Bowl,’ ‘Super Sunday,’ ‘trophy presentation ceremony,’ ‘MVP presentation,’’Super Bowl wrap-up,’ etc. The football fan (a pseudo-event persona) could go from here to list pages of spin-off pseudo events connected to this single topic. The same can be done for business, employment, travel, entertainment, shopping, education, and politics.

2016 Pseudo Events in Campaign

Now that you’ve got the idea, and realize that you’re an expert on this subject already, here are a few notes on pseudo-events in the current campaign season.

The behemoth that has evolved as the ‘modern’ news industry is an electric network of interconnected newspapers, journals, publishing houses, television studios, radio stations, wire services, internet websites, blogs, filmmakers, and photo-libraries, all topped and dominated by the 24 hour cable networks, and combined into a few monopolistic, international conglomerates. News is very much a manufactured product. “Stay tuned, breaking news,” along with “this just in” are recently invented pseudo-event framings with staying power. The spinning wheel dumps out the news of tomorrow very efficiently. The one in the news rarely makes the news by oneself. More often the electric behemoth makes the newsmaker and the newsmaker’s news. The demand exists for gross quantities of pre-packaged news, and the supply delivered is beyond abundant.
.
Boorstin tells us—you won’t be surprised—that the ‘celebrity,’ a person “known for being known,” is a pseudo-event type persona invented to replace the ‘hero,’ the guiding light of principled citizens in earlier times. When the hero is still recognized, albeit with declining frequency, he or she will have the solace of promotion to ongoing ‘celebrity’ status shortly thereafter. Think of it this way. ‘Celebrity’ is the pseudo-event persona that the ‘consumer,’ another pseudo-event persona, requires as a honeybee to pollinate products with an image attractive enough to groove traffic their way for purchase and consumption.

As I write today, March 15, 2016, I am aware that a new national political pseudo-event has been invented just this week for this very day. Today’s scheduled voting in the five states of Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio, is now known as “Super Tuesday 3.” Only a week ago, “Super Tuesday 2,” was invented because it followed so smoothly upon the pseudo-event invented years ago for the preceding Tuesday, known as “Super Tuesday.” Super Tuesday will henceforth be Super Tuesday 1. Are we Americans inventive or what?

Another week has past and I see that Super Tuesday 4. has not been invented, even though the states of Arizona, Idaho, and Utah are to vote today. Do we have design sense, or what? ST4 would be a bit too much!

I surmise that the cable news networks, who now dominate the field of pseudo event production—showing themselves to be the master magicians and circus ringleaders of our electric pseudo age—achieved a new milestone a few weeks ago with the invention of the ‘candidate town hall interview.’ They recognized early in 2015 that they could host as many ‘debates’ as they wanted, and started to offer them weekly when the interest held up. The television audiences proved to be huge and so, no doubt, were the profits. But three or four months ago, despite all past experience, the networks were mostly just going to and covering town halls in towns around New Hampshire, while staying in Manchester and showing us images of downtown streets and the Merrimack River. But then, in 2016, we find Chuck Todd, voila, conducting a one-on-one interview with Marco Rubio at a ‘town hall’ in Miami, Chris Matthews doing the same with Hillary Clinton, and another with Senator Sanders. The networks in 2016 have been bringing the election events right into their nightly programs when possible, and using their anchors as town hall interviewers.

Illusion is what we seek in pseudo-events, and illusion is what we get, with attendant numbness, titillation, ambiguity, and befogging. We’re deciding how our elections are going to be run by the way the cable news networks find it most economic to cover them. Political pseudo-events tend to collapse and flatten space and time. In Todd’s ‘Rubio town meeting,’ Miami serves as every place, all the places we viewers sit; it’s a ‘town’ and a ‘hall’ only for the night, it can return to being a city tomorrow. The town comes replete with a crafted audience, simulating citizens who just walked in off the street. The candidate is to be interviewed by the host of Meet the Press, not a local party leader, and the candidate will be asked questions that opinion research shows will attract viewer interest. And yes, the ‘viewer’ is a pseudo-event persona in this scenario, along with the ‘interviewer’ and ‘candidate!’

Conclusion

This introduces a disturbing personal realization. ‘Celebrity,’ ‘consumer’, and ‘viewer’ are linked pseudo-event personas undergirding economic growth. I’ve contorted myself into a regular ’viewer’ and ‘consumer’ of daily political pseudo-events in which a ‘celebrity’  known for hammering reality into the heads of management apprentices in entertaining pseudo-events is the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States. In an irony Boorstin would have appreciated, Trump, a ubiquitous fabricator, is considered totally credible by his acolytes. Boorstin shows in the book how believability came to threaten truth and gain preference over truth for Americans.

But how has celebrity become so real to me? How did I get to make regurgitated news such a big part of my day and life? Boredom, I suppose. Super pseudo-events conquer boredom. Who anymore sits on the porch and enjoys the transit of the sun? Excessive expectations, Boorstin would say; that’s our problem. We want more than we have; reality is never good enough for us.

This trend toward pseudo-events is overwhelming. The analysis could go on and on. It’s comparable to the task of trying to track a bacteria or a virus. Pseudo-events will likely submerge us well before we catch up with them. We’re each on our own out there dancing with the electric beast.

But then, in the end, when all is said and done, nature dictates necessity. Nature determines what is real. Reality is not illusion. Melting glaciers, submerged coastlines, disappearing species, and global warming are real; they are not pseudo-events. The decline in sustainability of life on the planet is, therefore, a direct, cruel, and natural measure of what our pseudo-event culture and illusionary lives are costing us. We won’t be able to pseudo-event ourselves out of that realization forever.

Afterword

Here is a summary of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America written by George F. Will in his Afterword to the book in 1992.

There are books, and this is one, that change the way we think because they change the way we see and listen. Today we see that we are living in a society that increasingly resembles an echo chamber lined with mirrors. Amid the sensory blitzkrieg contemporary life, much that is spoken is merely auditory wallpaper. It is there but not noticed. We do not even listen, really listen, to what we ourselves are saying. If we did we would find that our intelligence is being bewitched by alarming clues to what we are, willy-nilly, becoming. (317.)

Will Callender, Jr. ©

March 24, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Great Questions For Trump

Great Questions For Trump

When Abraham Lincoln ran for President as the nominee of the Republican Party in 1860, he remained home in Springfield while surrogates canvassed the country on behalf of his candidacy. That was the custom then, for all candidates, not just Lincoln. Humility was a public virtue. Candidates for President, at least in theory, were to be discovered, promoted, and acclaimed by their fellow citizens. Willingness to run for office and ample self regard were not enough.

That time of nascent civil war was worse than ours. It wouldn’t be among the times of greatness from which our nation, in Donald Trump’s estimation, has fallen to such depths as to require his superhero intervention to “make America great again.” But then, how far would his candidacy have gotten if he remained demurely in the Trump Tower while surrogates did the mouth and photo-op work? No matter. That issue is mute now, of no consequence. Besides, I get queasy when issues of ‘greatness’ arise. Aggrandizement is a longstanding habit of ours. We expect too much and as a result exaggerate prodigiously, belying a level of self esteem below our hard earned worth and our due as human beings. So Donald Trump, his claims, and his legion of supporters mostly discombobulate me. They represent a big step backwards from American greatness, however one defines the word.

Yet, an idea comes to mind. Why don’t we who love words ask media interlocutors to ask Mr. Trump and his supporters about the meaning of his words? Why don’t we ask for details? Why don’t we do the same for other candidates? Might not understanding be enhanced that way?

I have a theory of modern life, which I suspect was true in Lincoln’s time too. Events have overrun and overwhelmed us. We’re buried in rapid happenings and rabid history. We’re trying desperately to breathe, dig out, catch up, and gain control. Our brains are virtual garbage dumps of maddening bits of electrified information, with more “this just in” news piling on top hourly. That’s the theory. We suffer from media mash and political claustrophobia, with its associated panic, terror, depression, and despair.

Look at the sophisticated way we use words in politics. We usually mean something other by what we say than what the words actually mean. That’s the key fact. It’s not just the habit of Donald Trump and his minions. It’s ours too. Some of this difference is intentional lying, yes, that’s true. Some of it is simple discretion and tact, surely it is. Some is clever disguise, I agree. But most of it is shortcut and substitute for hidden, complicated, rarely told personal stories. For example, if I say “President Obama is our worst President,” or you say “the national debt is an unforgivable burden to pile on the backs of our children,” or another says “we must return to the constitution and recover our freedoms,” or still another says “politicians are all liars,” all of us are making shorthand allusions that stand in for deep, hidden analyses and personal perspectives we’d like to tell and have understood. Our quick, one-line zinger summations substitute for buried stories, our stories. These iconic shout-outs pile up and contort into a moving image of citizenry who have lost the capacity for civic engagement and transfigured into a parade of grotesques, forming an ongoing memorial to its own buried national history.

Of course, telling such stories would take time, and time is short; there is too little, never enough. On that people agree. We’re on the run, so get on with it, say it quick or not at all, we’re late and have to go, this in an age where listening and reading time are in steep decline, and an electronic “like” and “share” culture is ascendent. There is no chance to fully understand each other. Besides, strangers, not ‘liked’ friends, are who really count in politics, and we all are strangers and passers-by now. We can’t know each other. The chances for inter-personal understanding are minimal. So we exchange grunts and soundbites with each other. We can spot probable friends and likely enemies on the cheap that way.

Our political statements, to summarize, are truncated, battle tested, provocative sound bites. They pinch hit for personal stories conveying circumstances, journeys, careers, beliefs, values, and commitments. Since everyone is in the same boat—under the sway of news claustrophobia,—these ways of talking tend to divide into two cultural piles in our two party political system. That is perhaps one of the reasons we are so ‘polarized.’ Americans usually get along just fine as long as they keep their mouths shut about politics.

But then along comes the political candidate or elected government official. That politician, with the clever help of advisors, consultants, think tankers, pollsters, editorialists, campaign managers, public relations firms, and the like, grinds out a similarly truncated piece of hocus-pocus that calibrates with his half of the electorate. The result is a mishmash of political babble. If lucky, you find that your particular zinger feature statement has been preempted and regurgitated into an even more clever slogan by your favorite candidate. Opponents, to be sure, will soon conjure ingenious, fiendishly cute responses in return. The parade of the grotesque marches on.

So here is a proposal to interviewers of Donald Trump and his followers, as well as to other candidates and their followers. Return the candidates’ words back to them for extraction of meaning, and ask them questions that promise to reveal the hidden, substituted story of our nation, whatever horrible nightmare or shiny dream may be hidden at its core.

In the Trump case, for examples, we have his soundbite, “I will make America great again,” and a media consensus that his supporters are “angry.” Questions are endlessly revealing, and the number that could be asked of a person on any subject is infinite. I find that encouraging! Here are a few I am curious about for the respondents, Trump and his prototype follower.

A few for Trump:

  • Has America been great from the get go, and great until now?
  • Or, has it been up and down, great/not great, over the years?
  • What is “great”? What’s not? What’s its opposite?
  • How does that differ from “good”/“bad,”or “better“/“worse?”
  • Are good and great the same thing?
  • If not, is “great” better than “good,” or vice-versa?
  • When did American greatness peak?
  • When did America greatness hit bottom?
  • Did any other President make America as great as did Polk? Who?
  • Be truthful, President Truman is said to have “lost China.” Is it President Obama who lost America’s greatness?
  • Did you say yes? I thought so? How on earth did he do it?
  • After your Presidency, what marks of greatness will be obvious?
  • Admit it, America is still great, isn’t it?
  • Are you prone to exaggeration? Tell the truth now.

A few for the angry Trump voter:

  • Are you bothered, concerned, irritable, pissed off, or angry?
  • If angry, have you always been angry, or is it new for you?
  • Is it hard to be angry? I mean, can you do it all the time?
  • How does it feel? Do you take any medicine for it?
  • Have you ever been happy? When? What happened?
  • What’s your economic situation? Is that what you’re angry about?
  • Are you angry with yourself or at someone else?
  • If your political enemy wins, will you get angrier?
  • If your favorite candidate wins, will happiness return?
  • Do you expect to be angry the rest of your life?
  • Have you asked what your country can do for you to make you happy?

Well, that’s the general idea. Feel free to add your own questions before sending the pile on for use by a favorite journalist or interviewer. Donald Trump has taken us beyond words to utter speechlessness. Words are nothing to him but sound bombs and dirty weapons. Still, there is ample time to recover our breath, dig out, and try mightily to force the candidate to speak like a thoughtful man, whether he’s been in the habit or not. Words have meanings and consequences. He should be held accountable for his.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

March 4, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Conservatism: Running on Empty

Conservatism: Running on Empty

The terms conservative and liberal have a long currency in politics. Among other uses they mark ‘right’ and ‘left’ on the political spectrum. Republicans found it useful to invoke conservative principles in seeking to roll back Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in the 1930s and 40s. They subsequently launched a ‘movement’ under the banner of conservatism to boost Barry Goldwater’s run for the Presidency in 1964. The Conscience of a Conservative was specially written for Goldwater’s candidacy. While his bid for office failed—in part because his conscience told him to exclaim: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”—the movement did succeed in electing Ronald Reagan to two terms as President from 1981 and 1989. That was its political apex. Its intellectual apex came earlier with Russell Kirk’s publication of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (1953), William F. Buckley’s magazine National Review (1955) and television show Firing Line (1966-1999), and the opening of the The Heritage Foundation in 1973. I personally think of Buckley’s Firing Line conversation with Norm Chomsky on the Vietnam War and Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles lecture at the The Heritage Foundation as high marks of the conservative movement. It’s been all downhill from there.

I’ve never been a fan of conservatism myself. I think of myself as a conservative person liberal in politics. It took no less a pundit than Ann Coulter to determine that I was really a mealy-mouthed, bleeding heart, constitution defiling, liberal traitor. Conservatives like Coulter have turned ‘liberal’ into such a vile epithet that smarter, younger people have reinvented themselves as ‘progressive.’ It is hard to tell what of value conservatism conserves these days. The movement seems to have gone beyond roque to extreme, radical, and creepy. Goldwater would fall under the ‘moderate’ label today.

What went wrong with the conservatism movement after the Reagan presidency? Ann Coulter happened. Rush Limbaugh happened. Matt Drudge happened. Fox News happened. Bill O’Reilly happened. Sean Hannity happened. Glenn Beck happened. Andrew Breitbart happened. Carl Rove happened. The ‘Tea Party’ happened. Everyone knows all that. But decades before these luminaries took center stage, Buckley’s conservatism had failed to dissuade him from calling his TV celebrity opponent, Gore Vidal, a “fag,” an impropriety for which Buckley never forgave himself and Vidal was forever thankful. Buckley and the audience recognized in a flash that his beloved conservatism was in part a shield behind which to attack hated enemies. That use is so out of the closet now that scurrilous attacks under the banner of conservatism are heard daily. Then again, Mike Huckabee happened. Rick Santorum happened. The Koch brothers happened. Sheldon Adelson happened. Scott Walker happened. Ben Carson happened. Marco Rubio happened. Ted Cruz happened. Donald Trump happened. Conservatives have multiplied while becoming famously more angry, but it is hard for an outside observer to know what the inner turmoil and fuss is all about. The ‘movement’ has failed to bring conservatives much happiness, that’s for sure, and it has brought only contumely, denigration, and pain to most everyone else . It has harmed our union. It feels weirdly reminiscent of 1861. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget that conservatives were mostly loud and proud defenders of slavery until the beginning of the Civil War.

Here is my view of how the ‘movement’ came to fail conservatives, the Republican party, and the nation.

  1. Conservatives stop explaining to the public the particular beliefs and principles that make them conservative. All the public need know is that they are conservative.
  2. Conservatives convert the nation into a battlefield on which they must win out totally over their opponents. Conservatives decide they are always right and their opponents always wrong.
  3. Conservatives tell themselves that liberals have failed the nation and lost the war to them. Liberals, conservatives think, have been vanquished.
  4. Conversation, discussion, honest debate, examination of differences, search for understanding, and cross-party legislative efforts with liberals are forbidden, verboten! Compromise is defeat.
  5. Conservatives imagine an ideal of single party governance. Communists tried that idea and destroyed themselves. Conservatives are  willing to try it again, and think they can succeed.
  6. A scent of religious purity wafts sweetly over conservatism, as if supernaturally ordained and bathed in divinity
  7. Conservatives, thus inspired, compete among themselves for recognition as ‘finest conservative of all.’ In the current contest for the Republican Party nomination for the presidency, the fifteen or so candidates have regularly trumpeted their “real conservative” bono fides and attacked the others as lesser or failed conservatives.
  8. Conservatism is eating up its host party, the Republican party, and eating up its own conservative membership with ‘holier than thou’ proclamations. Every new group of conservatives asserts that their brand of conservatism is purer and finer than that of their predecessors, who are ‘out-of-fashion,’ ‘too old,’ ‘compromised,’ ‘turncoats,’ or moderates in disguise. Party organization ossifies. The movement implodes.
  9. Conservatism, engorged on failure and frustration, blows up regularly in public rage, like a bloated supernova, gushing forth a stream of complaints, fears, invectives, and threats. This week’s blow up concerns the President’s right to exercise his constitutional obligation to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court. Don’t try it, conservatives warn. As one wag noted, they must think President Obama, the nation’s first African American President, is in office for “3/5th” of a term!
  10. Untethered to core beliefs, the flood of ‘issues’ that spew forth from conservatives loses intellectual and moral justification, as well as effectiveness, and sounds like whining and sour grapes.

Most claims conservatives make about their movement are false. Conservative ideology is not set in stone, a shiny jewel. It is not divine truth revealed on a holy tablet. It is not a set of inter-connected rational propositions. It is not a closed system of necessary thoughts.  It’s not a religion unless believers want to make it one. Conservative and liberal ideas are not mutually exclusive and incomparable; both, for example, emphasize the values of freedom, individualism, and constitutional government. There are more Conservative ideologies than one. They can be thoughtful or callous, well reasoned or poorly reasoned, consistent or contradictory, well written or terribly written. Most important, they are human thought, and nothing but human thought.

When I began this essay, I thought that failure to explain conservative beliefs and principles to the public was the big reason conservatism had gone so badly astray. Simply asserting one’s conservative credentials isn’t nearly enough. All ideas are in play in a democracy and need to be available for inspection. Issues have become untethered from moral and rational justification because the public didn’t know what these pithy conservative values, beliefs, and principles were. Yet, their advocates would say: we’re principled conservatives. Trust us on that!

Based on this assumption of mine, I was prepared to suggest a simple idea to my conservative compatriots—forty-seven to fifty-three percent of all Americans, I’m told—let’s start over again.  We liberal, progressive, and independent citizens know that your conservative sensibilities are important and that your belief is sincere. So please explain it all to us, one belief, value, and principle at a time. Let’s see exactly where we agree and disagree, and let’s discover what we can do together to serve our beloved nation and make it great. We’ll do the same with our beliefs and principles. We’ll reinvigorate our democracy together that way.

This still seems like a good idea, and I’m all in if anyone else will join me, but to tell the truth, I’m squeamish about the lists of beliefs and principles that conservatives have put forth in the past, whether it’s Russell Kirk’s ’10′, Ronald Reagan’s ‘11,’ or someone else’s 4, 8, 12, or 15. I know this much: there is a deep, thoughtful, sagacious, and important storehouse of conservative thought to read, digest, discuss, and apply, and that we as citizens can benefit from it. Nevertheless, I’m inclined in the short run to take another tack. Let me tell you first what I suspect and fear. I’m afraid that the existing bulleted lists of conservative beliefs didn’t precede issue identification, but quite the opposite, that a concern for specific issues led the concerned group.to invent a belief and principles list to justify their otherwise indefensible prejudice. Google, Bing, or Yahoo “list of conservative beliefs and principles” and you can test this hypothesis for yourself. Whenever a politician refers to his “principles,” you hope such principles lead the person to do the right thing when inclined to do wrong, but the opposite is more plausible: the ‘principled’ politician is claiming good reason to do the wrong thing. How otherwise can it be that good people are willing to take poor people’s food stamps away and deny them health coverage in hard economic times when their own bellies and wallets are full?

To take another tack, let’s posit that conservative ideas are those one conjures for protection when fearful of change, and liberal ideas those one adopts when feeling safe and welcoming of change. As Abraham Maslow taught, we all have safety needs, and also needs to develop and achieve our potential. When threatened and fearful, we defend ourselves, we protect all we have from loss. When we are safe and the surrounding world is encouraging, we feel free and we welcome change. This formulation solves one large problem: it shows clearly why the conservative-liberal dialogue is universal. The basic issue is fear. Emotional needs, not reason, motivate the search for conservative ideas. Conservative and liberal ideology is universal. What changes are the ideas conjured to constitute current beliefs and principles lists.

There is another, more impersonal way—call it the sociological, anthropological, and philosophical way—to make the same point. Social entities of all sorts—societies, nations, organizations, civilizations—require both structure and dynamic action, order and transformation, stability and novelty, tradition and progress, continuity and change. Thoughtful systems of ideas are needed for guidance on when to stay the course and when to change. This is the problem that the best of conservative and liberal thought accomplishes for its people. Citizens in a democracy require wise guidance to insure continuity of all that is good and of essential value while addressing all that must and should change.

Conservative compatriots of America. Please stop shouting. You fail your country, yourself, and your cause. Please rejoin your fellow citizens in trying to build a better nation and world for all, one good idea at a time.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

February 22, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good