Why Few Americans View Climate Change as a Moral Problem by Ezra Markowitz

BigThink.com, June 15, 2012 –Guest post by Ezra Markowitz, doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon.

Excerpt

The moral judgment system—the set of cognitive, emotional, social and motivational mechanisms responsible for producing our perceptions of right and wrong—has been receiving a lot of attention recently, only some of it good. A slew of best-selling books, dozens of exciting new research findings, and a host of current events have converged to produce a rapidly growing interest in the role that moral judgment and intuition play in shaping everything from the effects of “green” products on ethical decision-making to growing political polarization

If climate advocates and communicators want people to perceive climate change as a moral imperative—and they should given that our moral intuitions are powerful motivators of action—then they’ll need to develop creative, evidence-based ways of confronting the challenges discussed above….

Full text

The moral judgment system—the set of cognitive, emotional, social and motivational mechanisms responsible for producing our perceptions of right and wrong—has been receiving a lot of attention recently, only some of it good. A slew of best-selling books, dozens of exciting new research findings, and a host of current events have converged to produce a rapidly growing interest in the role that moral judgment and intuition play in shaping everything from the effects of “green” products on ethical decision-making to growing political polarization. Research on the shortcomings and short-circuiting of the moral judgment system has been of particular interest, propelled in part by a seemingly endless stream of juicy scandals and unsavory behavior—financial, political, personal or otherwise.

Building on this work, Azim Shariff and I (among others) have been exploring what research in the field of moral psychology can tell us about public (dis)engagement with climate change, another topic that has seen an explosion of research in recent years. In particular, we have been interested in why—despite a growing chorus of moral philosophers, political theorists, religious leaders and others calling for recognition of climate change as a moral imperative (see here and here for recent examples)—many people appear to lack strong moral intuitions about the issue, the kinds of feelings that drive concern and compel us to action.

Why doesn’t climate change trigger the moral judgment system? The answer, we think, has a lot to do with the interaction between certain features of climate change on the one hand and how the human moral judgment system operates on the other. As Azim and I lay out in a recently published paper in Nature Climate Change, at least six distinct yet closely related processes likely contribute to weak moral intuitions about climate change. Here’s a quick recap of what we write in the paper:

1)  First, for most people, climate change is a complex, distant (for now) and abstract phenomenon; as a result, it tends to produce fairly limited emotional reactions in people, starving the moral judgment system of the emotional input that it relies on.

2)  Second, the moral judgment system is finely tuned to recognize specific types of moral transgressions, such as intentionally performed actions that cause harm to identifiable victims; yet as the philosopher Dale Jamieson and others have argued, climate change lacks many of these features: its victims are by-and-large strangers or not yet alive and it is a side-effect of modern life, not something anyone is intentionally trying to cause (there is no single moustache-twirling villain we can blame).

3) Third, Americans (in particular) are exposed to a lot of messages blaming them for causing climate change, many of which seem designed specifically to make people feel guilty; yet we are highly motivated to view ourselves as good, moral people. To maintain such positive self-assessments, people engage in a host of motivated moral reasoning techniques, many of which operate outside of conscious awareness. The net result is that instead of changing either their views of themselves as good or their harmful behaviors, people tend to reject those messages of blame and the issue behind them.

4) Fourth, uncertainty regarding the timing, severity, and location of future climate change impacts provides room for overly optimistic beliefs about the issue, allowing individuals to avoid feeling obligated to do something about the problem until the uncertainties are resolved (which of course is unlikely to occur any time soon).

5) Fifth, because the victims of climate change live faraway in both space (from Americans) and time, they are likely to be perceived as out-group members and thus as less deserving of moral standing. Such perceptions further weaken moral resolve.

6) Sixth, much of the existing framing of climate change as a moral issue targets only a subset of people’s moral values, particularly those that are important to political liberals. As a result, potentially powerful triggers of moral intuition about climate change have largely been ignored by advocates and communicators, likely contributing to political polarization on the issue.

Of course there’s plenty more going on—perceptions of climate change are influenced by a wide range of micro- and macro-level factors, from how the issue is covered by the media to individuals’ worldviews to personal experiences of local weather extremes. The point I want to drive home is this: truly engaging with climate change as a moral issue—really feeling its moral significance viscerally—is no easy feat, regardless of how often we hear about the people and animals that will be harmed or the injustice of richer individuals and nations misappropriating a life-sustaining, common resource.

If climate advocates and communicators want people to perceive climate change as a moral imperative—and they should given that our moral intuitions are powerful motivators of action—then they’ll need to develop creative, evidence-based ways of confronting the challenges discussed above. As a starting point, Azim and I discuss six potential strategies in our paper:

1) Engage the full range of moral values that people hold; framing climate change as an issue that involves considerations of purity, respect for authority and others, and loyalty to one’s community and nation may help generate novel moral intuitions.

2) Focus messages on the burdens that can be avoided by addressing climate change (e.g., outbreaks of disease; drought-induced hardships) rather than on the positive benefits (e.g., a stable climate) that will be gained or lost by our (in)action; burdens appear to engage the moral judgment system more powerfully than benefits.

3) Motivate action through messages that generate positive emotional responses—including hope, pride and gratitude—rather than those that appeal to guilt, shame and anxiety; positive emotions may produce longer-lasting and more sustainable motivation to address the issue, in part by providing a buffer against motivated moral reasoning.

4)  Avoid linking action on climate change exclusively to extrinsic motives, such as job growth and economic stability; doing so weakens moral engagement by deemphasizing intrinsic values and motives.

5)  Find ways to bring the faraway victims of climate change into individuals’ in-groups; one possible way to do so is to highlight the goals and values that those victims share with people living today.

6) Highlight widely-shared, positive social norms—such as prohibitions against being wasteful—as a way to both increase pro-climate action and increase the salience of morally-relevant considerations in the context climate change.

Although engaging the moral judgment system on climate change won’t be easy, finding effective ways to do so has the potential to unleash a powerful and as-of-yet under-mobilized source of motivation for action.

–Guest post by Ezra Markowitz, a doctoral candidate in Environmental Sciences, Studies and Policy at the University of Oregon and a research fellow with the Climate Shift Project at American University.  His research centers around the intersection of social and moral psychology, environmental conservation, communications and policy. Current projects include an examination of the “compassion collapse” phenomenon in the environmental domain, an analysis of cross-national climate change threat perceptions, and research on the dynamics and mechanisms of intergenerational environmental stewardship and reciprocity. Markowitz is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, a Gallup Research Scholar, a staff member at PolicyInteractive, and in Fall 2012 he will be a post-doctoral research associate at the Princeton University Institute for International and Regional Studies.

http://bigthink.com/age-of-engagement/why-few-americans-view-climate-change-as-a-moral-problem?page=all

Why Are Believers Willfully Ignorant About Atheists? By Greta Christina, AlterNet

Alternet.org, June 28, 2012

Did you hear the one about the Anglican minister who said atheists have no reason for grief?

I wish I was joking. I’m not. In a widely disseminated and discussed opinion piece, Anglican minister Rev. Gavin Dunbar made an interesting and even compelling argument that grief is necessary for love and humanity… and then went on to argue that, unless you believe in God, you have no reason to care whether the people you love live or die, or even to love them in the first place.

Again: I wish I was joking. I quote:

The new atheists proclaim their gospel with the fervour of believers: God is dead, man is free, free from the destructive illusions of religion and morality, of reason and virtue. But then a someone dies, suddenly and cruelly, like the young man known to many in ..[this] parish [in [Eastern Georgia] who was killed in a freakish accident last weekend. And his death casts a pall of grief over his family, his friends, their families, his school, and many others. Yet if he was no more than an arrangement of molecules, a selfish gene struggling to replicate itself, there can be no reason for grief, or for the love that grieves, since these are (we are told) essentially selfish survival mechanisms left over from some earlier stage in hominid evolution. Friendship is just another illusion. But of course we do grieve, even the atheists. And in so grieving, they grieve better than they know (or think they know).
The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others.

My first reaction… well, to be honest, my first reaction was pretty close to blind rage. As an atheist, I’ve been targeted before with bigotry, with hostility, even with hatred and threats of violence. But rarely have I encountered a critic of atheism who was so ready to deny even my basic humanity, who was so ready to tell me — and tell the world — that because I am an atheist, I see not only morality and virtue, but love and friendship and grief, as an illusion. I actually agree with Dunbar that grief is one of the things that makes us human… and it filled me with rage to be told that, because I don’t believe in a magical soul animating my body, because I don’t think I’m going to see my dead loved ones in an invisible forever happy place, I am somehow incapable of experiencing this essential humanity. My first reaction on reading this piece was pretty much to scream “Fuck you” at my computer screen, and be done with it.

My second reaction was a desire to carefully, painstakingly, as patiently as possible, explain to Dunbar exactly how and why atheists value life and experience grief, and to go through his piece with a fine-toothed comb taking apart every ridiculous myth and piece of misinformed ignorance. That project might take weeks, though, since this piece is so full of it. So I’ll just touch on the worst of it.

The most crucial point: Saying that life and morality and reason and virtue and emotions such as grief are physical processes — this is not the same as saying they are illusions.

Yes, atheists think that morality and virtue, love and friendship, reason and grief, are physical phenomena with no supernatural component. We don’t understand exactly how this works — humanity is very much in the early stages of figuring out consciousness — but an overwhelming body of evidence strongly points to that conclusion, and atheists understand and accept that. Whatever consciousness is, it is almost certainly a construct of the brain. And we think social experiences, such as morality, virtue, love, grief, are emotions and mental constructs, which evolved in us to help us survive and flourish as a social species.

But that is not the same as saying they are false. It is not the same as saying they are illusions. It is not the same as saying they have no meaning.

In fact, for many atheists, the fact that consciousness and love and grief and such are physical products? This actually invests them with more meaning. Many atheists — I’m one of them — look at the fact that consciousness is a physical construct, and are filled with wonder and awe. We look at the fact that, out of nothing but rocks and water and sunlight, this wildly complex bio-chemical process called life developed, and then evolved into forms with the capacity for consciousness, and then evolved into forms with the capacity for communication and compassion, ethics and altruism, love and grief… and we are gobsmacked. Four billion years ago, the Earth had rocks and water and sunlight — and now, it has not only consciousness, but consciousness which is able to step out of itself, and to connect with other consciousnesses, and to suffer when these other being are lost — as much or more as we suffer any direct injury to ourselves. That is wondrous beyond my power to express in words.

What’s more, many atheists look at the idea that we create our own meaning, not as a loss of meaning, but as a gain. We feel that life and love, morality and grief, have more meaning — not less — because we create that meaning for ourselves, instead of persuading ourselves that it was handed to us by an invisible creator who’s mapped out the meaning of our lives and handed it to us wholesale. And for many atheists, the fact that life is finite makes it more precious, not less. It makes us value it more highly — and it makes us grieve its loss more deeply.

Yes, atheists think that life and morality and love and grief are all part of the physical world. But that doesn’t make it less real for us. That makes it more real. The physical world is the one we know really exists. Atheists aren’t the ones insisting that the true source of life and morality and love and grief is an invisible, intangible, supernatural being that nobody can agree on and that we have no good reason to think exists. Accusing us of seeing these things as illusions is the height or irony.

The Parthenon is a human construction, too. That doesn’t make it an illusion, or meaningless. That’s one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard.

But after I’d thought about all this for a while, my urges to both blind rage and line-by-line demolition gave way… to a baffled irritation, focusing on one big question:

Couldn’t he have asked us?

Couldn’t Dunbar have gone down to his local atheist organization and asked them, “You know, I don’t get it about atheist grief — if you don’t believe in God or the soul, why do you value life and grieve over death?”

Couldn’t he, at the very least, have spent 10 minutes Googling the phrase, “atheist grief”? If he had, he would have found: the Grief Beyond Belief support network, several news articles (including one by me) about the Grief Beyond Belief support network, an atheist grief support group on the Atheist Nexus social network, an article titled “Grief Without God” on the RichardDawkins.net Web site, a book titled Godless Grief… I could go on and on. If he’d pursued any of these abovementioned avenues, he could have been directed to any number of other essays, journal entries, blog posts, works of fiction, pieces of music, pieces of art, and long, thoughtful, heartfelt conversations about this exact topic, and answering his question about why atheists grieve before he’d ignorantly bloviated about it.

Why didn’t he do it?

What was he afraid of finding?

This is the question I keep coming back to.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. It’s not. I can’t count the number of opinion pieces I’ve seen from religious leaders, speculating fervently on how atheists clearly have no basis for morality, and only reject religion so we can be free of its rules... when they could have simply Googled the phrase “atheist morality,” and found out just how passionate most atheists are about right and wrong, and where we think the basis for this morality lies. I can’t count the number of opinion pieces I’ve seen from religious leaders, blithely opining about how atheists have no meaning to our lives, how atheists have no joy, how atheists hate God, how there are no atheists in foxholes… when, again, a simple Google search could have disabused them of these notions in 10 minutes.

And this refusal to hear what atheists say about ourselves extends beyond the pulpit and the opinion pages. It’s distressingly common among ordinary citizens in everyday life. On a regular and frequent basis, atheists are criticized — vilified, even — simply for being open about our atheism. When atheists run billboards and bus ads saying simply that we exist and are good people, there’s almost always an angry, intensely offended reaction from religious believers: protests, boycotts, demands that the ads be taken down, even vandalism. Transit companies will sometimes stop accepting any religious or controversial ads entirely, rather than let atheists advertise with them. In fact, a bus company in Pennsylvania recently rejected an ad from an atheist organization — an ad that literally had nothing on it but the URL of the organization, and the word, “Atheists.” The mere act of atheists saying, “We exist” — this is enough to send many believers into fits, accusing us of being offensive, provocative, mocking, flaunting, and hateful. The mere act of hearing atheist voices sends far too many believers into a rage.

What are they afraid of finding?

Now, I’m sure some believers will read all this and say, “But atheists do the same thing! They live in their atheist bubble, they imagine what believers think and feel, and they don’t ever talk to us to find out!” And sometimes, that’s true. But not usually. According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, atheists, on average, are better informed about religion and religious believers than believers are. In fact, atheists are generally better informed about the specifics of given religions than the believers in those very religions. We know a lot more about them than they do about us.

It’s important to remember that most atheists were once believers. We’re familiar with religion because we’ve believed it ourselves. And it’s important to remember that, in most of the world, religious belief is the dominant culture. Atheists have to be familiar with it. It’s shoved in our face on a regular basis. Our friends believe it, our families believe it, our co-workers believe it, it’s all over the media. We can’t be ignorant of religion. We’re soaking in it.

Believers, on the other hand, are not soaking in atheism. Many atheists are trying to change this, of course, and are working to make atheism more visible and harder to ignore — but there’s still a huge amount of ignoring, and of ignorance. And far too much of this ignorance is willful and deliberate. People ignore us, even when they’re supposedly trying to figure us out.

Why? When believers write and talk and think about atheists, and about what they imagine atheists think and feel — why don’t they bother to ask us? What are they afraid of finding out?

I’ve read and talked with a lot of believers — and with a lot of atheists who used to believe. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, if believers actually found out how atheists think and feel, it would present a serious challenge to their beliefs.

When you look at the most common arguments for religion and against atheism, you’ll find that most of them aren’t actually arguments. They’re not attempts to look at the evidence and logic supporting theism and atheism. They’re attempts to deflect the question. They’re attempts to shield religion from ever being seriously questioned. The notion that any criticism of religion is intolerant; the idea that religion shouldn’t have to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas; the endless parade of “Shut up, that’s why” arguments that typically get marshaled against atheists… it all exists to protect religious faith from ever being seriously examined. Not to mention the more obvious attempts to silence atheists — like preventing atheist high school students from organizing clubs, and overt bullying and harassment of atheists, and blasphemy laws in theocracies that put atheists in prison and even execute them. Religion is like a house of cards — protected by a massively strong fortress.

And one of the largest pillars in this fortress is the bigoted mythology about atheists. The idea that atheists are amoral? That our lives lack meaning and joy? That we’re only atheists so we can reject religious rules? That we hate God? That our atheism is shallow, and we reject it and embrace religion when faced with suffering and death? That we have no basis for human emotions like love and friendship and grief? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all this mythology exists to keep believers from listening to anything we have to say.

The very existence of atheists and atheism is a challenge to religious belief. Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. Religion is the Emperor’s new clothes… and if enough people start saying out loud that the Emperor is naked, it’s going to be harder to ignore the guy’s pecker hanging out in the breeze.

It’s easier to ignore those voices if they’re marginalized. It’s easier to ignore those voices if people can pretend that we don’t care about right and wrong, that we think everything is physical and therefore nothing matters, that we see love and compassion as illusions, that we have no reason for grief. It’s easier to ignore those voices if people can pretend that we’re not quite human.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/156052/

Five Lessons in Human Goodness From “The Hunger Games” By Jeremy Adam Smith

YES! Magazine, Posted on AlterNet.org, June 28, 2012 

Excerpt

1. Killing is against human nature. 
2. Wealth makes us less compassionate.
3. People are motivated to help others by empathy, not reason or numbers.
4. Power flows from social and emotional intelligence, not strength and viciousness.
5. Social connection trumps power and independence.

Full text

In the dystopian future world of The Hunger Games, 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death, their battle turned into televised entertainment. This war-of-all-against-all scenario sounds as though it might reveal the worst in humanity—and to a degree, that’s true.
But what raises The Hunger Games above similar stories, like the cynical Japanese film Battle Royale, is that it is mainly preoccupied with how human goodness can flourish even in the most dehumanizing circumstances.
As I watched the film and read the book, I found the story kept reminding me of classic pieces in Greater Good about the psychological and biological roots of compassion, empathy, and cooperation. The vision of human beings as fundamentally caring and connected is not merely wishful thinking on the part of Suzanne Collins, the author of the novels on which the movie is based. In fact, it’s been tested by a great deal of scientific research. Here are five examples.

1. Killing is against human nature.
Katniss, a skilled hunter and the hero of The Hunger Games, is indeed horrified by the prospect of dying—but her worst fears revolve around needing to kill other people. “You know how to kill,” says her friend Gale in the book. “Not people,” she replies, filled with horror at the idea. When she actually does kill a girl named Glimmer, she’s wracked with guilt and throws herself over the body “as if to protect it.”
Research says that Katniss is the rule, not the exception. “The study of killing by military scientists, historians, and psychologists gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species, under just about any circumstance,” writes Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his Greater Good essay, “Hope on the Battlefield.”
Sociologist Randall Collins comes to a similar conclusion in his massive study Violence. “The Hobbesian image of humans, judging from the most common evidence, is empirically wrong,” he writes. “Humans are hardwired for interactional entrainment and solidarity; and this is what makes violence so difficult.”
 
2. Wealth makes us less compassionate.
The citizens of the Capitol brutally exploit the 12 districts of the country of Panem, giving themselves a very high standard of living while deliberately keeping the rest in a state of abject poverty. The movie and the book take pains to reveal how much this limits their ability to empathize with the less fortunate—a situation confirmed by research, some of which has been generated by the Greater Good Science Center here at UC Berkeley.
“In seven separate studies,” writes Yasmin Anwar, “UC Berkeley researchers consistently found that upper-class participants were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling or negotiating, cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behavior in the workplace.”
This doesn’t mean affluence makes you evil. According to the author of a related study, Greater Good Science Center Hornaday Graduate Fellow Jennifer Stellar, “It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted. They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”
3. People are motivated to help others by empathy, not reason or numbers.
“If you really want to stay alive, you get people to like you,” says their drunken, traumatized mentor, Haymitch. It’s the first advice he gives to the heroes, Katniss and Peeta, and a surprising amount of the film’s action revolves around their efforts to win people’s sympathy, which results in “sponsorships” that help them in their most desperate moments.
Haymitch’s advice is supported by new research that suggests if you want to encourage people to take humanitarian action, logic and big numbers don’t help—as every ad copywriter knows, people are most moved to help individuals with compelling personal stories.
When a team of psychologists ran a study of two fundraising appeals—one emphasizing a girl’s story, the other the number of people affected by the problem—they found “that people have more sympathy for identifiable victims because they invoke a powerful, heartfelt emotional response, whereas impersonal numbers trigger the mind’s calculator,” as former GGSC fellow Naazneen Barma writes. “In a fascinating cognitive twist, this appeal to reason actually stunts our altruistic impulses.”
4. Power flows from social and emotional intelligence, not strength and viciousness.
Peeta proves particularly adept at manipulating the emotions of the “Hunger Games” audience. He seldom actually lies to anyone, but he does artfully reveal and conceal his emotions to maximize their impact and win support for their survival (a trait illustrated in the clip above, when he uses his crush on Katniss as the raw material for a compelling, sympathetic story). In contrast, the characters who rely on brute force and violent prowess find themselves isolated and defeated in the end. It’s the most compassionate characters who ultimately triumph.
This is exactly what research in social and emotional intelligence predicts will happen. “A new science of power has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with, the needs and interests of others,” writes GGSC Faculty Director Dacher Keltner in his essay “The Power Paradox.” “Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.”
5. Social connection trumps power and independence.
“The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person’s social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated,” writes Christine Carter in her Raising Happiness blog.
It’s a point reinforced by Robert Sapolsky in his essay, “How to Relieve Stress”:
There’s another lesson we can learn from dogs and other hierarchical mammals, like baboons: Social rank can cause stress, especially where rankings are unstable and people are jockeying for position. But social rank is not as important as social context. What patterns of social affiliation do you have? How often do you groom, how often does somebody groom you? How often do you sit in contact and play with kids?
What’s clear by now is if you have a choice between being a high-ranking baboon or a socially affiliated one, the latter is definitely the one that is going to lead to a healthier, longer life. That’s the baboon we want to be—not the one with power, but the one with friends, neighbors, and family.
Katniss would very much like to be totally self-reliant. But she simply isn’t, and from a certain perspective,The Hunger Games is the story of how she comes to realize the importance of social connection and her interdependence with other people.
In the book, when one character tells her she’s a survivor, her reply is telling: “But only because someone helped me.” Katniss is tough and resourceful, but, in the end, it’s her ability to connect with others that saves her.
________________________________________
Interested in more?
• Practical Compassion: An Interview with Karen Armstrong
The historian has helped world religions unite behind a single principle. But can a worldwide charter for compassion become more than just a nice idea?
• The UN Embraces the Economics of Happiness
Leaders from around the world want well-being—not gross national product—to guide our economic decisions.
• The Revolution is Love
What’s love got to do with the Occupy movement?
•  
Jeremy Adam Smith is Web Editor of the Greater Good Science Center where this article originally appeared and author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, he was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter.
© 2012 YES! Magazine All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/156080/

 

Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America By Sara Robinson

AlterNet, June 28, 2012

Excerpt

It’s been said that the rich are different than you and me. What most Americans don’t know is that they’re also quite different from each other, and that which faction is currently running the show ultimately makes a vast difference in the kind of country we are.

Right now, a lot of our problems stem directly from the fact that the wrong sort has finally gotten the upper hand; a particularly brutal and anti-democratic strain of American aristocrat that the other elites have mostly managed to keep away from the levers of power since the Revolution. Worse: this bunch has set a very ugly tone that’s corrupted how people with power and money behave in every corner of our culture. Here’s what happened, and how it happened, and what it means for America now.

North versus South: Two Definitions of Liberty

Michael Lind first called out the existence of this conflict in his 2006 book, Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. He argued that much of American history has been characterized by a struggle between two historical factions among the American elite — and that the election of George W. Bush was a definitive sign that the wrong side was winning.

For most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige (the conviction that those who possess wealth and power are morally bound to use it for the betterment of society). While they’ve done their share of damage to the notion of democracy in the name of profit (as all financial elites inevitably do), this group has, for the most part, tempered its predatory instincts with a code that valued mass education and human rights; held up public service as both a duty and an honor; and imbued them with the belief that once you made your nut, you had a moral duty to do something positive with it for the betterment of mankind. Your own legacy depended on this.

Among the presidents, this strain gave us both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Poppy Bush — nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously. Among financial elites, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet still both partake strongly of this traditional view of wealth as power to be used for good. Even if we don’t like their specific choices, the core impulse to improve the world is a good one — and one that’s been conspicuously absent in other aristocratic cultures.

Which brings us to that other great historical American nobility — the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain “order,” and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God…these elites have always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press…perhaps the most destructive piece of the Southern elites’ worldview is the extremely anti-democratic way it defined the very idea of liberty. In Yankee Puritan culture, both liberty and authority resided mostly with the community, and not so much with individuals. Communities had both the freedom and the duty to govern themselves as they wished (through town meetings and so on), to invest in their collective good, and to favor or punish individuals whose behavior enhanced or threatened the whole (historically, through community rewards such as elevation to positions of public authority and trust; or community punishments like shaming, shunning or banishing).

Individuals were expected to balance their personal needs and desires against the greater good of the collective — and, occasionally, to make sacrifices for the betterment of everyone. (This is why the Puritan wealthy tended to dutifully pay their taxes, tithe in their churches and donate generously to create hospitals, parks and universities.) In return, the community had a solemn and inescapable moral duty to care for its sick, educate its young and provide for its needy — the kind of support that maximizes each person’s liberty to live in dignity and achieve his or her potential. A Yankee community that failed to provide such support brought shame upon itself. To this day, our progressive politics are deeply informed by this Puritan view of ordered liberty.

In the old South, on the other hand, the degree of liberty you enjoyed was a direct function of your God-given place in the social hierarchy. When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.

Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense. We can understand the traditional Southern antipathy to education, progress, public investment, unionization, equal opportunity, and civil rights

The Civil War was, at its core, a military battle between these two elites for the soul of the country. It pitted the more communalist, democratic and industrialized Northern vision of the American future against the hierarchical, aristocratic, agrarian Southern one. Though the Union won the war, the fundamental conflict at its root still hasn’t been resolved to this day. (The current conservative culture war is the Civil War still being re-fought by other means.)…

post-war Southerners and Westerners drew their power from the new wealth provided by the defense, energy, real estate, and other economic booms in their regions. They also had a profound evangelical conviction, brought with them out of the South, that God wanted them to take America back from the Yankee liberals — a conviction that expressed itself simultaneously in both the formation of the vast post-war evangelical churches (which were major disseminators of Southern culture around the country); and in their takeover of the GOP, starting with Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

They countered Yankee hegemony by building their own universities, grooming their own leaders and creating their own media. By the 1990s, they were staging the RINO hunts that drove the last Republican moderates (almost all of them Yankees, by either geography or cultural background) and the meritocratic order they represented to total extinction within the GOP. A decade later, the Tea Party became the voice of the unleashed id of the old Southern order, bringing it forward into the 21st century with its full measure of selfishness, racism, superstition, and brutality intact.

…Buttressed by the arguments of Ayn Rand — who updated the ancient slaveholder ethic for the modern age… — it has been exported to every corner of the culture, infected most of our other elite communities and killed off all but the very last vestiges of noblesse oblige…

 

We are withdrawing government investments in public education, libraries, infrastructure, health care, and technological innovation — in many areas, to the point where we are falling behind the standards that prevail in every other developed country.

Elites who dare to argue for increased investment in the common good, and believe that we should lay the groundwork for a better future, are regarded as not just silly and soft-headed, but also inviting underclass revolt. The Yankees thought that government’s job was to better the lot of the lower classes. The Southern aristocrats know that its real purpose is to deprive them of all possible means of rising up against their betters.

The rich are different now because the elites who spent four centuries sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority, community, government, and the social contract aren’t just confined to the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state.

As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.

Full text

It’s been said that the rich are different than you and me. What most Americans don’t know is that they’re also quite different from each other, and that which faction is currently running the show ultimately makes a vast difference in the kind of country we are.

Right now, a lot of our problems stem directly from the fact that the wrong sort has finally gotten the upper hand; a particularly brutal and anti-democratic strain of American aristocrat that the other elites have mostly managed to keep away from the levers of power since the Revolution. Worse: this bunch has set a very ugly tone that’s corrupted how people with power and money behave in every corner of our culture. Here’s what happened, and how it happened, and what it means for America now.

North versus South: Two Definitions of Liberty

Michael Lind first called out the existence of this conflict in his 2006 book, Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. He argued that much of American history has been characterized by a struggle between two historical factions among the American elite — and that the election of George W. Bush was a definitive sign that the wrong side was winning.

For most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige (the conviction that those who possess wealth and power are morally bound to use it for the betterment of society). While they’ve done their share of damage to the notion of democracy in the name of profit (as all financial elites inevitably do), this group has, for the most part, tempered its predatory instincts with a code that valued mass education and human rights; held up public service as both a duty and an honor; and imbued them with the belief that once you made your nut, you had a moral duty to do something positive with it for the betterment of mankind. Your own legacy depended on this.

Among the presidents, this strain gave us both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Poppy Bush — nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously. Among financial elites, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet still both partake strongly of this traditional view of wealth as power to be used for good. Even if we don’t like their specific choices, the core impulse to improve the world is a good one — and one that’s been conspicuously absent in other aristocratic cultures.

Which brings us to that other great historical American nobility — the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain “order,” and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God.

As described by Colin Woodard in American Nations: The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, the elites of the Deep South are descended mainly from the owners of sugar, rum and cotton plantations from Barbados — the younger sons of the British nobility who’d farmed up the Caribbean islands, and then came ashore to the southern coasts seeking more land. Woodward described the culture they created in the crescent stretching from Charleston, SC around to New Orleans this way:

It was a near-carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity….From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror. Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States to this day.

David Hackett Fischer, whose Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways In America informs both Lind’s and Woodard’s work, described just how deeply undemocratic the Southern aristocracy was, and still is. He documents how these elites have always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press. (Lind adds that they have historically been profoundly anti-technology as well, far preferring solutions that involve finding more serfs and throwing them at a problem whenever possible. Why buy a bulldozer when 150 convicts on a chain gang can grade your road instead?) Unlike the Puritan elites, who wore their wealth modestly and dedicated themselves to the common good, Southern elites sank their money into ostentatious homes and clothing and the pursuit of pleasure — including lavish parties, games of fortune, predatory sexual conquests, and blood sports involving ritualized animal abuse spectacles.

But perhaps the most destructive piece of the Southern elites’ worldview is the extremely anti-democratic way it defined the very idea of liberty. In Yankee Puritan culture, both liberty and authority resided mostly with the community, and not so much with individuals. Communities had both the freedom and the duty to govern themselves as they wished (through town meetings and so on), to invest in their collective good, and to favor or punish individuals whose behavior enhanced or threatened the whole (historically, through community rewards such as elevation to positions of public authority and trust; or community punishments like shaming, shunning or banishing).

Individuals were expected to balance their personal needs and desires against the greater good of the collective — and, occasionally, to make sacrifices for the betterment of everyone. (This is why the Puritan wealthy tended to dutifully pay their taxes, tithe in their churches and donate generously to create hospitals, parks and universities.) In return, the community had a solemn and inescapable moral duty to care for its sick, educate its young and provide for its needy — the kind of support that maximizes each person’s liberty to live in dignity and achieve his or her potential. A Yankee community that failed to provide such support brought shame upon itself. To this day, our progressive politics are deeply informed by this Puritan view of ordered liberty.

In the old South, on the other hand, the degree of liberty you enjoyed was a direct function of your God-given place in the social hierarchy. The higher your status, the more authority you had, and the more “liberty” you could exercise — which meant, in practical terms, that you had the right to take more “liberties” with the lives, rights and property of other people. Like an English lord unfettered from the Magna Carta, nobody had the authority to tell a Southern gentleman what to do with resources under his control. In this model, that’s what liberty is. If you don’t have the freedom to rape, beat, torture, kill, enslave, or exploit your underlings (including your wife and children) with impunity — or abuse the land, or enforce rules on others that you will never have to answer to yourself — then you can’t really call yourself a free man.

When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.

Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense. We can understand the traditional Southern antipathy to education, progress, public investment, unionization, equal opportunity, and civil rights. The fervent belief among these elites that they should completely escape any legal or social accountability for any harm they cause. Their obsessive attention to where they fall in the status hierarchies. And, most of all — the unremitting and unapologetic brutality with which they’ve defended these “liberties” across the length of their history.

When Southerners quote Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty or give me death” — what they’re really demanding is the unquestioned, unrestrained right to turn their fellow citizens into supplicants and subjects. The Yankee elites have always known this — and feared what would happen if that kind of aristocracy took control of the country. And that tension between these two very different views of what it means to be “elite” has inflected our history for over 400 years.

The Battle Between the Elites

Since shortly after the Revolution, the Yankee elites have worked hard to keep the upper hand on America’s culture, economy and politics — and much of our success as a nation rests on their success at keeping plantation culture sequestered in the South, and its scions largely away from the levers of power. If we have to have an elite — and there’s never been a society as complex as ours that didn’t have some kind of upper class maintaining social order — we’re far better off in the hands of one that’s essentially meritocratic, civic-minded and generally believes that it will do better when everybody else does better, too.

The Civil War was, at its core, a military battle between these two elites for the soul of the country. It pitted the more communalist, democratic and industrialized Northern vision of the American future against the hierarchical, aristocratic, agrarian Southern one. Though the Union won the war, the fundamental conflict at its root still hasn’t been resolved to this day. (The current conservative culture war is the Civil War still being re-fought by other means.) After the war, the rise of Northern industrialists and the dominance of Northern universities and media ensured that subsequent generations of the American power elite continued to subscribe to the Northern worldview — even when the individual leaders came from other parts of the country.

Ironically, though: it was that old Yankee commitment to national betterment that ultimately gave the Southern aristocracy its big chance to break out and go national. According to Lind, it was easy for the Northeast to hold onto cultural, political and economic power as long as all the country’s major banks, businesses, universities, and industries were headquartered there. But the New Deal — and, especially, the post-war interstate highways, dams, power grids, and other infrastructure investments that gave rise to the Sun Belt — fatally loosened the Yankees’ stranglehold on national power. The gleaming new cities of the South and West shifted the American population centers westward, unleashing new political and economic forces with real power to challenge the Yankee consensus. And because a vast number of these westward migrants came out of the South, the elites that rose along with these cities tended to hew to the old Southern code, and either tacitly or openly resist the moral imperatives of the Yankee canon. The soaring postwar fortunes of cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta fed that ancient Barbadian slaveholder model of power with plenty of room and resources to launch a fresh and unexpected 20th-century revival.

According to historian Darren Dochuk, the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, these post-war Southerners and Westerners drew their power from the new wealth provided by the defense, energy, real estate, and other economic booms in their regions. They also had a profound evangelical conviction, brought with them out of the South, that God wanted them to take America back from the Yankee liberals — a conviction that expressed itself simultaneously in both the formation of the vast post-war evangelical churches (which were major disseminators of Southern culture around the country); and in their takeover of the GOP, starting with Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

They countered Yankee hegemony by building their own universities, grooming their own leaders and creating their own media. By the 1990s, they were staging the RINO hunts that drove the last Republican moderates (almost all of them Yankees, by either geography or cultural background) and the meritocratic order they represented to total extinction within the GOP. A decade later, the Tea Party became the voice of the unleashed id of the old Southern order, bringing it forward into the 21st century with its full measure of selfishness, racism, superstition, and brutality intact.

Plantation America

From its origins in the fever swamps of the lowland south, the worldview of the old Southern aristocracy can now be found nationwide. Buttressed by the arguments of Ayn Rand — who updated the ancient slaveholder ethic for the modern age — it has been exported to every corner of the culture, infected most of our other elite communities and killed off all but the very last vestiges of noblesse oblige.

It’s not an overstatement to say that we’re now living in Plantation America. As Lind points out: to the horror of his Yankee father, George W. Bush proceeded to run the country exactly like Woodard’s description of a Barbadian slavelord. And Barack Obama has done almost nothing to roll this victory back. We’re now living in an America where rampant inequality is accepted, and even celebrated.

Torture and extrajudicial killing have been reinstated, with no due process required.

The wealthy and powerful are free to abuse employees, break laws, destroy the commons, and crash the economy — without ever being held to account.

The rich flaunt their ostentatious wealth without even the pretense of humility, modesty, generosity, or gratitude.

The military — always a Southern-dominated institution — sucks down 60% of our federal discretionary spending, and is undergoing a rapid evangelical takeover as well.

Our police are being given paramilitary training and powers that are completely out of line with their duty to serve and protect, but much more in keeping with a mission to subdue and suppress. Even liberal cities like Seattle are now home to the kind of local justice that used to be the hallmark of small-town Alabama sheriffs.

Segregation is increasing everywhere. The rights of women and people of color are under assault. Violence against leaders who agitate for progressive change is up. Racist organizations are undergoing a renaissance nationwide.

We are withdrawing government investments in public education, libraries, infrastructure, health care, and technological innovation — in many areas, to the point where we are falling behind the standards that prevail in every other developed country.

Elites who dare to argue for increased investment in the common good, and believe that we should lay the groundwork for a better future, are regarded as not just silly and soft-headed, but also inviting underclass revolt. The Yankees thought that government’s job was to better the lot of the lower classes. The Southern aristocrats know that its real purpose is to deprive them of all possible means of rising up against their betters.

The rich are different now because the elites who spent four centuries sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority, community, government, and the social contract aren’t just confined to the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state.

As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.
Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet’s Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet’s Vision newsletter for weekly updates.

http://www.alternet.org/story/156071/

Corporate America, meet ‘Generation C’ by Brian Solis

Washington Post, June 28 2012

Brian Solis is the author of The End of Business as Usual. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a research based advisory firm in San Francisco where he studies the impact of new media on business and consumer behavior.

Excerpt

But, while these people may seem distracted, they are, in fact, very much a part of the occasion. Multitasking is a way of life for them, but there’s something more to it than just a love affair with smartphones and tablets. These “always on” audiences share real-world experiences as they happen with friends and acquaintances who, in turn, respond in real time.

This means word-of-mouth has evolved from one-to-one to one-to-many conversations. Shared experiences become a formidable currency in the networked economy where the influence of an individual is significantly augmented. And, it’s this influence that changes the game for how consumers and organizations connect in the future.

In the age of social media, we are witnessing a C-change (as in “C” for customer) in the balance of power between consumers and businesses. This increasingly empowered generation of connected customers, which I often refer to as Generation-C, is changing the face of engagement and is re-writing the book for how businesses market and serve them in the future.

Today, customers realize that social networks give them influence over how other consumers view a company and they are learning how to influence companies to listen, respond and resolve problems directly. At the center of this evolving customer landscape are shared experiences. People share just about everything and, whether we believe it or not, the activity around these shared experiences influences the impressions and behavior of other consumers in social networks to varying effects.

Full text

You’re at a concert and you notice nearly everyone in the audience is either looking down at their phone or holding it up in the air. A question slowly dawns on you: “What’s the point?”

Going to an event is about being in the moment and enjoying the experience to the fullest, right?

Yes.

But, while these people may seem distracted, they are, in fact, very much a part of the occasion. Multitasking is a way of life for them, but there’s something more to it than just a love affair with smartphones and tablets. These “always on” audiences share real-world experiences as they happen with friends and acquaintances who, in turn, respond in real time.

This means word-of-mouth has evolved from one-to-one to one-to-many conversations. Shared experiences become a formidable currency in the networked economy where the influence of an individual is significantly augmented. And, it’s this influence that changes the game for how consumers and organizations connect in the future.

In the age of social media, we are witnessing a C-change (as in “C” for customer) in the balance of power between consumers and businesses. This increasingly empowered generation of connected customers, which I often refer to as Generation-C, is changing the face of engagement and is re-writing the book for how businesses market and serve them in the future.

Think about this for a moment. Have you ever noticed that it’s almost always social media experts who have problems with companies or products on Twitter? Here’s why, they figured out that, by leaning on the reach and volume of their networks, they can make a difference. They can also jump ahead of traditional service queues to earn attention over one-to-one channels. Businesses are more inclined to respond quickly to these types of complaints in an effort to limit the extent of negative sentiment and improve perceptions.

Today, customers realize that social networks give them influence over how other consumers view a company and they are learning how to influence companies to listen, respond and resolve problems directly. At the center of this evolving customer landscape are shared experiences. People share just about everything and, whether we believe it or not, the activity around these shared experiences influences the impressions and behavior of other consumers in social networks to varying effects.

Services such as Klout, Kred, and PeerIndex now measure social media activity and translate it into an “influence” score. This, for better or for worse, introduces a social consumer hierarchy, creating a new standard for consumer marketing and service – and connected consumers know it. A report by my employer, Altimeter Group, titled “The Rise of Digital Influence” takes a look at precisely this phenomenon.

Dissatisfied customers are not the only ones getting attention. Many businesses also take a very important next step, which is to acknowledge happy customers. This form of positive reinforcement serves as a form of “unmarketing” where consumers feel appreciated and are encouraged to share what they love about the business, product and overall experience.

Individuals with the largest, most loyal, or actively engaged networks form a powerful and connected consumer landscape. What they share or don’t share contributes to a collective brand or service experience that, without engagement, is left for the connected audiences to define.

Suddenly, the audience with an audience becomes a formidable foe or ally for any organization. As such, the proactive investment in positive experiences now represents a modern and potentially influential form of consumer marketing and service. But to engage in the new realm of digital influence will take more than tweets or participating social media conversations. Connected audiences demand that marketers and executives alike rethink the entire customer experience before, during, and after transaction. But remember: No amount of responses can fix a broken product or service.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations and Brian Solis on “Digital Darwinism and why brands die.”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/corporate-america-meet-generation-c/2012/06/27/gJQAQlKG9V_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Honoring and Remembering those who served and sacrificed – Memorial Day, May 30, 2011

Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis,MN May 2011 - by Phyllis Stenerson

Memorial Day is set aside for remembering our fellow citizens who sacrificed their lives and well being while serving in our country’s armed forces. We honor the full measure of commitment of those who serve in theUnited Statesmilitary, and for the families who share in the sacrifice. 

Initially called Decoration Day, Memorial Day began by local people in various communities coming together to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War. The official national holiday began in 1868 with an proclamation from General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The first national observance was on May 30, 1868 when graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery were decorated with flowers. Every grave at Arlingtonis decorated every year to continue this tradition of honoring the fallen. 

The date was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May with the National Holiday Act of 1971. The three day weekend has had the effect of diverting public attention from commemorating the sacrifice of Americans in the Armed Forces to enjoying a three day weekend. There has been a movement to restore the Memorial Day to its original date. 

The National Memorial Day Concert is broadcast on public television from the west lawn of the United States Capitol on Sunday May 29, usually at 7 p.m. Central Time (check local listing). Featured are acclaimed actors and musicians, the National Symphony Orchestra and color guards from all branches of the military and more. For more information about the concert, visit www.pbs.org/memorialdayconcert

Fort Snelling National Cemetery will hold their annual Memorial Day service on Monday, May 30 starting at 10:30 am. 

Our own Lakewood Cemetery holds a lovely, meaningful service starting at 10 am with traditional music, speeches and military color guards. It’s a wonderful time to experience our neighborhood in a special way and enjoy this unique resource. 

People across the country are asked to observe a moment silence at 3 p.m. (local time) to honor and remember those who gave their lives for our country. The Moment of Remembrance was initiated by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and first observed in 2001. 

It’s sad conflicting worldviews that so often divide Americans sometimes spill over into observances of Memorial Day. The observance is an opportunity to set personal biases aside and come together to honor those who served in the past and gratitude for those who are choosing to serve at this time. Thank you from a grateful citizen.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – July, 2011

Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis, MN – July 2011 - Editorial by Phyllis Stenerson

The Declaration of Independence
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of AmericaWhen in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

With this revolutionary, visionary document the world’s first democracy was established along with the founding principles ofAmerica. Democracy is often cited as one of the major accomplishments of civilization and the best form of government ever invented. 

“I never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence” said Abraham Lincoln, one of our most admired presidents. 

Now, 235 years later, we need to face the fact that we’re not living up to the vision of our founders and the potential of democracy. Problems and divisiveness have escalated to the point democracy is endangered. 

In Minnesota, government could shut down unless Republicans and Democrats can reach a compromise. The waste of taxpayer money and pain to countless citizens would be awful. At the federal level a stalemate between the two parties over the debt ceiling has major potential negative repercussions. 

We’re mired in seemingly endless wars and the military is our major expenditure, shortchanging education, infrastructure renewal and numerous other investments needed to continue the nation’s progress. An economic collapse was avoided but we’re left with massive debt. The Wall Street bankers that caused the crash are getting richer while millions of ordinary people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and record numbers of people are falling into poverty. Congress is ignoring those in need. Income for middle class workers has declined so that this backbone of a democratic society is severely endangered. The American Dream is slipping away for many.  

The American public is now the most deeply divided since the Civil War. We’ve always had diversity of opinion but it has reached epic proportions. For instance, the income gap between the rich and the rest of us is the worst since the Gilded Age of robber barons at the start of the 20th Century. Cultural differences involving racial, economic and gender justice are rampant and increasingly contentious with violence erupting all too often. Corporations and the wealthy have gained control of the political process by pouring massive amounts of money creating and communicating their message plus making huge financial contributions to campaigns, substantially drowning out the voice of the grass roots. 

This is the culture war, and it is real. 

At the root of most controversies is our worldview – the way we see the world and our place in it, our philosophy of life. There are two dominant worldviews, one usually labeled conservative and the other liberal or progressive. Or left and right. So much has changed over the past 30 years that there’s now no common understanding of what those terms actually mean. Most people are spread across the continuum but the political debate is stuck at either end. 

We have conflicting visions of what kind of country we wantAmericato be. People argue about who is a “real” American and what is the “real”America. We basically do not understand each other. 

The split emerged in the turbulent 1960’s but didn’t become dominant and toxic until about ten years ago. The invasion ofIraqwas the catalyst for many of us. It seemed so obviously wrong, even stupid, to some of us and an essential, even righteous, act to others. 

We can’t even agree on our history. Information presented by historians generally goes through peer review and public feedback over time before becoming accepted by the public as common knowledge and the foundational truths of our democracy. Over the past few years the “right wing” has aggressively promoted and presented an alternative “true” history of theUnited States. It’s largely based on minor incidents and obscure writings being presented as major influences. 

The legitimacy and effectiveness of government programs have been discredited since Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address in 1981 that “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” That pronouncement became a mantra and political philosophy. 

The teaching of civics in public schools or community forums has all but vanished and the general public is woefully uninformed about our nation’s history and political system. This lack of education created a vacuum into which erroneous information could be directed. The good news is that in the last ten years as problems emerged and escalated a vibrant, well informed conversation emerged via the internet. The not-so-good-news is that falsehoods go viral even more easily. 

Our country is becoming increasingly diverse and complex while our ability and/or willingness to seriously deal with problems deteriorates. Our expertise and potential for advancing society has grown but the willingness to accept new ideas is often suppressed. The magnitude and multitude of problems overwhelms the public’s willingness or ability to effectively participate in the process. This all combines to threaten the very stability of our governing system. This may seem melodramatic and overblown but, sadly, I believe it is an accurate description of the state of the union. 

I’m mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore without speaking out. Driving my fury is deep concern over what kind of a world our grandchildren will inherit. What’s wrong with America can be fixed with what’s right with America. We are ready and able to become an even stronger and better country. 

The Uptown Community of Minneapolis is a living example of what’s right in America. We need to share our culture of intelligent, involved citizenry and responsive government with other communities, and learn from them. 

I urge all thoughtful, patriotic citizens across the political spectrum to get involved in a vibrant national dialogue and citizen activism. It’s a way for ordinary citizens to understand and articulate America’s true moral values so they can prevail over partisan ideology. 

“It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system,
that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government
owes not only a proportion of his property,
but even his personal service to the defense of it.”
George Washington

“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations
which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength,
and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Thomas Jefferson

“Among the features peculiar to the political system of theUnited States,
is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect.”
Benjamin Franklin

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…
they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson

 

 

Ten Years – A decade in American democracy – September 2011

Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis, MN – September 2011 - Editorial by Phyllis Stenerson

September 11, 2001 – a day when the world changed forever. 

We’ll never forget the horror we felt as we learned foreign terrorists had invaded our country inflicting incalculable damage and pain. Thousands died and many thousands more had their lives torn apart. Our country was united in shock and grief and had the empathy of the world.

The enormity of changes in American culture and politics since that day of infamy is stunning. Before this tragedy, it seemed like thing were going quite well in the country and world, generally. TheUnited Stateshad no deficit, we weren’t directly embroiled in any wars, the transition to a new President seemed like business as usual. It looked like we were on track to continue pursuing the American dream, to seeking liberty and justice for all. 

As the months after September 2001 passed along, events began to unfold that were, well, unbelievable – but actual. Most egregious was the invasion ofIraq. The buzz on the internet is that the recent earthquake on the East Coast was caused byAmerica’s founders turning over in their graves. Literally graveyard humor, but humor is hard to find and so helpful in keeping perspective. 

Since I was not directly affected by the tragedy I was able to let my thoughts connect to my country as a whole. I’ve been deeply involved in public affairs for a long time and became determined to figure out what was driving this turmoil. And, I became fascinated. Some might say obsessed.  

Over the next months I’ll be sharing some findings and insights with the intent of contributing to public civic education, stimulating thinking and promoting dialogue. There was a time when subjects that were not considered polite conversation included politics, money, race, power, sex, and religion. That’s what we need to talk about plus much more.

To presume to present an overview of American democracy is an audacious task, but it is being done with deep humility. These editorials in the Uptown Neighborhood News are the voice of just one citizen seeking a vibrant renewal of our democratic tradition of working together for the common good. 

Big problems are big opportunities for positive change.  

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“Have you ever considered how complicated things can get,
what with one thing always leading to another?”
E. B. White
 
“Our country, right or wrong.
When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”
Carl Schurz

What the people want is very simple.
They want an America as good as its promise”
Barbara Jordan

Comments from readers are welcomed. Please send letters to UptownNews@yahoo.com or Uptown Neighborhood News at 3612 Bryant Avenue South,Minneapolis 55409. We look forward to hearing from you.

“I quote others only the better to express myself.”
Michel de Montaigne

Money and Politics – A Toxic Brew – October 2011

Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis, MN – October 2011 - Editorial by Phyllis Stenerson

All issues in society are interwoven, each impacting the other in some way. Perhaps most glaring and egregious is the link between money and political power. Over the last 30 years wealth has shifted upward. Wages for the working class declined while the cost of living rose. The top 10% of earners got over 90% of all income leaving about 10% to be spread across the bottom 90% of workers. The average CEO is paid $275 to every $1 earned by regular employees. 

Income disparity, unemployment, poverty, homelessness and hunger inAmericaare at record highs. The middle class is in deep trouble. It may take more than a generation for families to regain financial stability.

Most analysts report the rich pay proportionately less in taxes than the working class. Taxes on capital gains and dividends have decreased while payroll taxes for regular workers have gone up. This is not a coincidence or happenstance of history. Money is buying power and influence, overpowering the voices of average citizens. It’s been a creeping plague for the past 30 years and is causing a crisis in democracy. 

Political campaigns have become outrageously expensive with races for Congressional candidates routinely costing more than million dollars and major campaigns topping a billion dollars. Billions of dollars are spent on skilled lobbyists to influence political decisions. Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2008 called Citizens United, corporations can now spend an unlimited amount of money to influence public policy with very little accountability. 

For example, the Tea Party started as a grassroots movement but was quickly taken over by Americans for Prosperity, an organization abundantly funded by billionaire oilmen Charles and David Koch and run by experienced, professional organizers. 

The only power sufficient to overcome organized money is organized people. Big money is turningAmericainto a plutocracy or oligarchy. Democracy is government by the people and for the people –  informed, organized, energized regular people. 

“There’s class warfare, all right,
but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Warren Buffett

 “In the general course of human nature,
a power over a man’s subsistence amounts toa power over his will.”
Alexander Hamilton

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals.
We know now that it is bad economics.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“We can have democracy in this country,
or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few but we can’t have both.”
Louis D. Brandeis

 

 

 

 

 

People Power or Money Power? – Editorial by Phyllis Stenerson – November 2011

Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis, MN

What a difference one month can make! Toward the end of September a crowd started to gather on Wall Street inNew York Cityto protest the significant role the financial industry played in causing our international economic crisis. People were expressing anger that major banking and investment institutions made huge profits from risky decisions but, when the bubble burst, were bailed out with taxpayer money instead of penalized. Meanwhile, millions of regular Americans lost their jobs, savings and homes and got no help. 

Occupy Wall Street sprouted up from the grassroots and grew rapidly into a worldwide movement within a few weeks. There are now protests in hundreds of cities including OccupyMN in downtownMinneapoliswhere about 1,000 people showed up on the first day, some stayed and many return frequently. 

While it’s true that some of the most devoted occupiers might be described as “looking a bit different” many are the people that you see each day in your neighborhood. It’s a lot easier to march for a few miles in balmy fall weather than sleep overnight on cold, hard concrete so we fair-weather friends appreciate those who are toughing it out.  

The Occupy movement is most certainly a phenomenon! It’s incredible in its size, scope, volume, velocity and unity. Individuals may be promoting a dizzyingly diverse array of causes but its animating message is abundantly clear: “The banks got bailed out, the people got sold out” to quote a frequently repeated slogan. 

Deregulation of the financial industry over the past decades, along with an escalating amount of money being poured into Congressional campaigns and lobbying, have had a profound effect on the power balance inAmerica. The top one percent of the population has amassed an obscenely large proportion of the national wealth while the middle class is shrinking and poverty is surging. “We are the 99%” is another message. 

There’s no doubt there are strong feelings for shifting power from the financial elite to the rest of us. A recent Time Magazine poll reported the OccupyUSA Movement has the support of 54% of the American public, surpassing 27% support for the Tea Party Movement. 

Only time will tell if and how this spontaneous, egalitarian movement will evolve into a force that will influence elections and public policy. Participants and observers are increasingly realizing that passions go much deeper than just economic justice and encompass the very moral values on which American democracy is based. Sign have emerged recently that say “Pardon the inconvenience. We are changing the world.” 

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Mohandas Gandhi 

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.”
Susan B. Anthony

“We learned long ago that power and privilege never give up anything without a struggle. Money fights hard, and it fights dirty.”
Bill Moyers

“Time doesn’t change things. People change things.”
Andy Warhol

 

Comments from readers are welcome. Send letters to the Editor at UptownNews@yahoo.com or UNN,3612 Bryant Avenue South,Minneapolis55409.

 

 

Starting with  the September 2011 issue I’ve been writing about politics and government with the intent of contributing to civic education and promoting dialogue. There was a time when subjects that were not considered polite conversation included politics, money, race, power, sex and religion. That’s what we need to talk about plus much more. Information to put this commentary into context can be found at www. ProgressiveValues.org.