Sunday, August 23, 2009

Some musings on our digital culture...

Okay remember back to 1996 when e-mail first started to become universal and people were all like: 'E-MAIL -- IT'S INSTANT. No more waiting 3 days for the post office to deliver a letter -- you can have that letter RIGHT NOW!"

Except pretty soon people had so much e-mail that it took them 3 days to respond anyway?

And then came blogs and people were all like: "BLOGS! I can publish anything INSTANTLY to the world wide web!"

Which was true of course, but 70 million blogs later, less than 1% of them are getting any sort of decent traffic and only the top 100 blogs or so are making any money.

And then people drifted over to Facebook with its photos and walls and such. Which is great of course, but now instead of mostly writing to people (e-mail) we're now posting things about ourselves and writing on people's walls for all the world to see -- and that's slightly different. E-mail is like partner dancing and FB feels more like a rave sometimes -- each person doing his/her own thing and sometimes interacting but often just starring at each other it would seem.

But then Facebook wasn't fast enough so people started to gravitate to Twitter as well. And people were all like: 'Twitter, it's INSTANT! I can find out about the news 10 minutes before it hits the papers or blogs!' On Twitter it's possible to follow 500, 1,000 or 10,000 people -- usually people one has never met and does not know personally. But it seems like the real goal is to get people to follow you -- which has this weird, everyone-as-their-own-cult sort of feel to it. Can anyone actually follow 1,000 people on Twitter? Or is it just a courtesy to get people to follow you back? And if a large percentage of followers are just being ignored to pick up a follow-back, what sort of conversation are we actually having?

I guess my question comes down to this:

In this digital age, we have all become publishers, but is anyone listening (or it is all just white noise)?

If you are like me, you start your day like this:
  1. You check e-mail, because a personal e-mail from a friend is still gold.
  2. But if I don't get any good e-mail, and most days I don't, then I go check Facebook and see what friends are saying about themselves.
  3. But after checking FB, I'm still longing for connection so I go to check Twitter to see what famous people and political pundits (strangers) are saying about themselves.
And by the end of the whole process I end up feeling more lost and alone than if I had never turned on my computer, and just called a friend instead.

The democratization of the conversation in the digital age is extremely cool. And at the same time, it's still a tiny handful of influencers (Malcolm Gladwell's "mavens") who are still dominating the conversation. And then there is a lot of noise. Now maybe some folks are figuring out a way to sort through the noise and aggregate it into patterns (I think that's the great challenge of our digital age) but most folks I talk to sound like they just feel overwhelmed by trying to drink water from the fire-hose of digital information we are pounded with each day.

I also feel that something not so great is happening. It feels to me that:
  • Community is being commercialized,
  • We have a digital filter (middle man) between us and other people, and
  • The simulacrum of community is being passed off as actual community and that is impoverishing us and making our lives feel more empty -- in the quest to feel more connected.
In so many ways, e-mail, blogs, Facebook, and twitter, can sometimes feel like selling alcohol to thirsty people. It creates the impression and feel of quenching one's thirst, while actually dehydrating people (which then leads them to consume more alcohol -- a vicious circle.)

So often I feel like we are becoming the NASA SETI program -- beaming messages out into the world hoping that some alien life form will pick them up, but never really knowing if the message is received. But really what we need is actual community -- dancing together, dinner together, community groups and meeting together, bowling together.

[So I guess it wasn't just a question: it was a question and a statement.]

And yet, as soon as I finish this post, I'm gonna cross post it to FB and Twitter because on some level I think that messages are being received. It's just not the same thing as conversation 'though.

I guess we live in prisons of our own making.

Update #1: A Manifesto for Slow Communication. Some great stuff in there.

Update #2: "Facebook Exodus" is the #1 most-forwarded story on the New York Times website today (Sept. 1). Money quote:
“The more dependent we allow ourselves to become to something like Facebook — and Facebook does everything in its power to make you more dependent — the more Facebook can and does abuse us,” Harmsen explained by indignant e-mail. “It is not ‘your’ Facebook profile. It is Facebook’s profile about you.”

How NOT to do framing

The Obama Administration's framing of the health care reform debate is almost a case study in how NOT to do framing.

1. Obama elevated bipartisanship over effectiveness. Early in the debate Obama laid down a marker that he wanted a bipartisan bill. And Republicans have been beating him over the head with it ever since -- watering down the legislation until it is nothing but a giveaway to the insurance industry, promising to filibuster, and asserting that Obama needs 80 votes in the Senate in order for the bill to be considered bipartisan. Obama should have said, 'I want an effective bill, that increases coverage while lowering per capita costs -- I don't care how we get there.'

2. Republicans asserted that the health care reform bill should not add to the deficit and Obama accepted that frame. That's ridiculous and the real killer in this debate (as we'll see below). Everyone knows the health care bill will not be budget neutral. That's like saying the military should be budget neutral -- not. gonna. happen. Obama should have said: 'Government should provide a certain basket of services to the people -- universal health care, effective military, Social Security for old folks. We pay for that basket of essential services with a basket of revenue sources including taxes and fees. There is never a one-to-one relationship between a particular program and a particular revenue source. In a democratic society the question is, What is the essential basket of services a government should provide -- and health care is clearly one of the essential things government should provide.'

3. So if the health care bill has to be revenue neutral -- where are the savings going to come from? Medicare. Republicans knew they created a ticking time bomb in the "budget neutral" framing and it finally blew up this past week. Once Obama accepted the cost neutral frame he had to go find the savings somewhere -- and he found it in proposing to control the rising cost of Medicare. Obama promised that he could save $400 billion dollars by controlling Medicare costs through increased efficiency. Seniors heard that as a "$400 billion cut in Medicare" -- which is what set off the "death panel" hysteria. Obama should have said: 'Democrats have been champions of senior citizens forever. It was Democrats who passed Social Security and Medicare and it was Democrats who fought off recent Republican attempts to kill Social Security and Medicare. Democrats will always fight for retirement and health security for seniors. Yes, we need to control long term health care costs, but that's a conversation for another day and I look forward to hearing the Republican plan to control those costs.'

But here's the thing, Team Obama does not make framing mistakes. They have perhaps the best messaging operation in the entire world. Al Gore and John Kerry screw up framing because they don't know how to do it -- Team Obama does not screw up framing. When they screw up like this it's likely because their stated agenda (universal health insurance) does not match their private agenda (just getting something passed and getting re-elected with the help of health industry $).

Obama gets away with making basic framing mistakes that would hobble a less charismatic speaker. But the truth is, he is so gifted, even with all of the mistakes listed above -- he still might be able to get a decent health care bill passed.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Retroflection, depression, and meds

So I'm reading this old school (1975!) article from Ken Wilber called, "A Working Synthesis of Transactional Analysis and Gestalt Therapy." It's really quite brilliant and it reminds me why I fell in love with Wilber's early stuff. [And it also reminds me how disconnected I feel from his current writing which to me feels brittle and ossified with integral orthodox code speak (TM).]

Anyway I want to break down two ideas from his article and then use them as a jumping off point for a bigger discussion about our current mental health catastrophe in the United States.

Okay so everyone who has ever read a psychology text book understands the concept of projection:

Projection is when a feeling (anger, shame, fear) arises in me, but (for whatever reason: usually family, culture, or religion) that particular feeling is unacceptable to me, so rather than feeling it and experiencing it -- I PROJECT it out onto another person and describe THAT person as having the very feeling I am trying to avoid in myself. The other person just becomes a canvas or screen upon which we project those emotions that we don't know how to deal with inside ourselves.

Most folks in the United States know about projection because we have an ENTIRE POLITICAL PARTY, the Republican Party, whose entire political program consists of projection. They take all of the violence and hatred inside themselves and project it upon Barack Obama and then have little tea parties to celebrate their failure to own their own emotions. Good times.

But, Wilber's article also introduced me to a term that I was not familiar with: retroflection. And this is where stuff starts to get really interesting:

To retroflect means literally "to turn sharply back against." When a person retroflects behavior, he [sic] does to himself what originally he did or tried to do to other persons or objects. He stops directing various energies outwards in attempts to manipulate and bring about changes in the environment that will satisfy his needs; instead, he redirects activity inward and substitutes himself in place of the environment as the target of behavior. To the extent that he does this, he splits his personality into "doer" and "done to." (Perls et al., 1951)

So retroflection then is the inverse of projection. In projection I disown my own feeling and put it on someone else, in retroflection I take a behavior that I really want to direct onto another and direct it towards myself instead.

Then Wilber gives us the money quote:

Retroflections come in all flavors. A few of the more common are narcissism (retroflected affection), depression (anger), hypochondria (inspection), self-pity (pity), masochism (cruelty), compulsiveness (drive). As we mentioned, once a retroflection has occurred, and the personality is split into the active pincher and the passive pinched, the individual can--and usually does--associate himself more closely withe one of the two sides. Sometimes for the same retroflected impulse, the emotional tone of one pole is dramatically different from that of the other. For example, if a person retroflects his hostility and associates with the doer side, he feels active self-hate; but if he associates with the done-to side, he feels passive depression. So the retroflections I've just listed will, of course, change their tone a bit depending upon which pole the person associates with. In general, the more the impulse is inhibited, the more completely the person will associate with the passive, done-to side of the retroflection; that is, the more he will feel a NOT OK Child being beaten by his Parent.

So let's pause for a second and note how much the debate over mental health has changed in this country over the last 30-40 years. In 1975, when this was written, this sort of thinking (Gestalt, Transactional Analysis, Psychotherapy) was mainstream. It WAS Psychology and Psychiatry. Now we have moved almost entirely to a behaviorist ('I don't want to understand I just want to feel better now!') and biochemical ('it's just a chemical problem that can be fixed with a pill') model.

Now look, before you get pissed at me, I get that there is a biochemical component to many mental health problems and I celebrate those who have been helped by the new (much-hyped) psychopharmaceutical drugs. I think for many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bi-polar, a biochemical model is probably a more helpful path for addressing the problem.

But that being said, what if Wilber is correct, or even partially correct in the quote above? What if many cases of depression really are just retroflected anger -- and we are just taking a pill for it instead of sorting out the underlying dynamic?

The implications are really quite startling.

First off, retroflection itself is an unhealthy strategy (obviously).

...a retroflected impulse does not really find an adequate object in the self--that is to say, a con-formed impulse is never completely satisfied. On the theory that something is better than nothing the Parent [in Gestalt terminology] will nevertheless keep directing blows at the Child--but this is a poor substitute (cf. Freudian "substitute gratifications"). As such, the conformed impulse frequently intensified its strength in an effort to find true and satisfactory expression ("return of the repressed"). A retroflector thus tends to increase his retroflecting activity.

So retroflection already has a tendency to grown over time. So then what happens if we take a pill for it? It would seem that we will never find balance in the world. The source (of the anger) hasn't been treated, rather the symptom has been temporarily obscured chemically. The body still wants to express that emotion, but has no outlet and now stumbles around in a fog looking for one. Doesn't that just set people up for a viscious cycle of more anger retroflected as more depression requiring more drugs, ad infinitum? Indeed, wouldn't the pharmaceutical industry just love that!? 'We don't know what the problem is exactly, but it seems to be getting worse, and the only solution is more of our patented drugs' (which in fact, make the problem even worse, requiring even more drugs...)

I think the political implications of this are even larger.

Play out this scenario with me:

1 in 10 women in the U.S. are on antidepressants.

Wilber argues that depression is just retroflected anger.

Women have a lot to be angry about -- they (legally!) get paid less than men for doing the same job, they are subjected to sexual violence in everyday life equal to the level of sexual violence men experience in prison; and a lot of men are assholes to name just a few potential sources of anger.

If that retroflected anger (depression) gets treated with a pill -- do we ever pass equal pay legislation? Do we ever find ways to end sexual violence in society? Do we ever find ways for men and women to relate to each other differently? IF the source is not chemical per se -- but rather injustice in society -- and we take away the very emotion that is the impetus for action, does society ever move forward or are we just narcotized to enjoy our increasingly unjust society?

One of the strange things about our current era is that problems are mounting rapidly -- the gap between rich and poor grows, Wall Street just stole several trillion dollars from your IRA and another trillion from the U.S. Treasury, heavy industries are poisoning our water, food, land, and children. In ordinary times, people would be marching in the streets with torches and pitchforks. But today, people are all like, 'I don't know what's the matter with me (retroflection) I gotta get my doctor to prescribe something to fix ME.'

It would seem to me that our unpleasant emotions are the very catalysts that we have been given (by God/natural selection) that enable us to improve collectively over time. It is our very discomforts -- our depression converted back to anger that has driven every single historic improvement in people's lives -- from abolitionism to women's rights to the current fight for LGBT equality. And if we take away that sensation, how does a society ever muster the collective energy to fight back against the numerous injustices all around us?

Said differently, if we have a burr in our shoe, and we take a pill just to rid us of the painful sensation of the burr -- do we ever go look for the burr, and doesn't it just fester and eventually get infected?

Look, believe me I have enormous compassion for the suffering I see in my friends and in myself. But in spite of billions of dollars worth of prescriptions, I don't really see the situation getting better and in many respects it would seem to me that it is getting worse (which as I pointed out above, Big Pharma would just love). IF Wilber is correct, that would perhaps explain this seeming paradox -- of course people are increasingly miserable because we're not treating the source of the problem at all and so it festers and grows.

I don't know whether Wilber (and Gestalt and Transactional Analysis) is correct. Wilber's been wrong about a lot of things, so this wouldn't be the first time. But it sure resonates with me and feels intuitively correct.

For more on the steps one would take to work with the shadow -- to transform retroflection into emotions that can be seen and integrated, please read the rest of the article, "A Working Synthesis of Transactional Analysis and Gestalt Therapy."

Update #1. For more on the problems in modern psychiatry and psychopharmacology, check out the Carlat Psychiatry Blog.

Let the Steve Jobs backlash begin

Look, I was on the Apple bandwagon back in like 1990. But then Pepsi dude John Sculley came along and wrecked the company and I just never went back. Since then, the Apple cult has continued to grow. And even though I'm likely to drop several thousand dollars on some Mac products in the next few months, I'd rather not buy an Apple.

4 reasons that Steve Jobs and Apple suck.

1. They make crappy hardware. I have three friends who have had harddrives fail on their Macs in the last few weeks. Apple is putting these crappy Seagate harddrives in laptops and they seems to crash and lose all of their data. I've had a Dell PC for 4 years and I've never had a problem with my harddrive. Apple is a software company but by pretending to also be a hardware company they can make 30%+ margins on both. It would be much better for consumers for Apple to split into 2 companies -- a software company + a hardware company that makes iPhones.

Apple (TM) is like In-N-Out Burger -- if In-N-Out made burgers AND teak furniture. "I'd love to sell you this nice delicious burger, but first you have to buy this $1700 teak dining room set." I suppose they could do it, the profit margins on both burgers and teak furniture would be very high -- but at the same time, it'd be kinda dickish too.

2. Only Steve Jobs could be called a genius for making a phone that can't make phone calls. AT& T is the worst fucking cell phone service in the world. Dropped calls, no reception in almost 50% of American cities, and terrible customer service. And Steve Jobs forces his customers into a 2-year contract with AT&T to have access to his shiny iPhone. To read more, check out this post, "AT&T is a Big, Steaming Heap of Failure." Thanks Steve for chaining all of your iPhone customers to Jabba the Hut.

3. Steve Jobs killed the music. I know what you are thinking -- 'illegal file sharing killed the music industry and Steve Jobs saved it with iTunes.' But here's my beef -- music used to be a shared experience. Music was intended to be listened to collectively, from speakers. In creating the iPod, Steve Jobs individualized music. He made it a personal experience -- just me and my music, with my earphones in my ears, shutting out the entire world. 'But!' you're saying, 'so did the Sony Walkman!?' Which is kinda true but not. The Sony Walkman was just a player -- the cassette and later CD could be played on any stereo. The iPod is both the player and the music and increasingly our music is locked inside a device that does not have speakers. Yeah I could go over to my computer, burn a CD, take it over to my stereo and play it, but by then I could have just watched the video on YouTube. And I suppose I could buy one of those speaker docks for the iPod -- but after spending $200 for the iPod it kinda hacks me off to have to spend another $200 bucks to hear it played on speakers.

4. In an age when software is increasingly free, open source, and universal, Apple is expensive as hell, closed, and proprietary. If the Apple OS is so great, and if Microsoft sucks so bad (which it does -- that's what's making Apple rich), then Apple should turn off the stoopid trusted platform module code that cripples the Mac OS if you try to run it on a PC. If Mac OS X is really the best operating system, great, prove it by selling it for the same price as Windows and letting me run it on a $500 PC.

Update #1: For a fun look inside the mind of Steve Jobs, check out The Secret Diary of (Fake) Steve Jobs. It's laugh out loud funny.

Update #2: The Apple backlash starts to get loud:

"My Evil iPhone" article on

"I Hate my iPhone" article in New York Times Sunday magazine (with over 1400 comments!) website that lets iPhone users vent.

Class action lawsuit against the iPhone 3G.

The craziest thing about all this is that Apple makes good shit. It's just that they are always trying to double bill their customers -- 'buy our awesome software plus this really overpriced hardware to run it on, buy our iPhone but AT&T is giving us a bigger kick back so we're going let them completely screw you and forget about ever getting your voicemail.'

When is Apple going to stand up not just for pretty design but for the entire user experience of the product?

Besides isn't it an unfair restraint of trade to disable your software if it doesn't detect your hardware? Again, if Apple is truly the best software, great, make it universal and able to run on any device (PC or cell phone) by any manufacturer -- and put Microsoft and Google out of business. And if Apple is truly the best hardware (it's not), great, make it universal and let any software run on it. Let the best universal platform win.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The first law of religious adherence

In my continuing quest to document the human condition I've come up with what I call:
First Law of Religious Adherence:

The success of any religion is directly proportional to the size of what it promises, divided by the cost of attaining that promise.

It's really quite remarkable how well this works. Check it out:

Religion Promise/CostNumber of Adherents

Christianityeternal life w/an optional golf package
(high promise)
follow no other Gods
(low cost)
2.1 billion

Islam72 virgins
(great promise!)
(ouch, very costly!)
1.5 billion

free from dogma and religious b.s. in this life
(great promise)
no eternal life
(costly, but not as costly as Islam)
1.1 billion

Hinduismsix heavenly levels
live a pure life with many paths to reach that goal
900 million

enlightenment in this life; maybe, or perhaps in the next
(good promise)
sit on your ass with your eyes closed for your whole life, beg for food & renounce sex and worldly pleasures
(wow, very high cost!)
376 million

Based on this chart, I think there is perhaps another great religion just waiting to be started -- one that combines the best promise (Islam's 72 virgins -- but it can be equal opportunity this time -- 72 virgins for both men and women!), with the lowest cost participation (Christianity's 'follow no other gods but me'). We can call it Christilam or Islianity. I think it could break 3 million adherents easy! [That's marketing synergy, baby!]

For a more serious look at changing attitudes towards religion in the U.S. check out Lisa Miller's article, "We Are All Hindus Now" in the most recent issue of Newsweek.

I bet there is a corresponding 1st Law of Politics:

The success of a political party is directly proportional to the size of the promise divided by the cost of attaining that promise [multiplied by a constant that represents the trust we have that the party will actually be able to deliver?]

In fact, I bet that's exactly why our economy and political system are such a mess right now. The Two Santa Claus theory that has defined U.S. politics for the past 30 years really is a version of Christilam -- the best promise (government services and tax cuts) combined with the lowest cost (more tax cuts). Except it only works as a theory of getting elected not as an actual method of governance. Religion doesn't have that problem -- they just get to sell the product -- it's up to God to deliver on the promise.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Maybe Britney Spears should copyright and trademark her vag

Intellectual property law in the digital ages continues to be a complete mess. From today's NY Times:
In 2007, when Coleman Hickey was 14, he made a stop-action film using Lego pieces and figures to depict a concert performance of the song “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” by Spinal Tap, the parody band featured in the 1984 mock documentary “This is Spinal Tap.”

Among the fans of the video, which has garnered 82,000 views on YouTube and includes a musician hurling himself into the audience of Lego figures and crowd surfing atop their upraised plastic arms, are the members of Spinal Tap. The band showed the video during performances of its recent “Unwigged and Unplugged” tour.

But Lego is not amused.

As final editing was being done on a concert DVD of the tour, which included footage from the video projected on stage, Lego declined to grant permission to use its figures, which are protected by copyright.

So let me get this straight. If I want to see the bald vag of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or Sharon Stone I can see it on any one of hundreds of internet sites like TMZ, NSFW, etc. But if I want to see a bunch of Lego characters playing air guitar to Spinal Tap songs on DVD it's like 'Whoa! Whoa! Are you CRAZY -- those little plastic people are covered by copyright law!'

Which leads me to a number of observations.

1. The corporate counsel at Lego needs to talk to the fucking marketing department at Lego. And maybe the marketing department can explain that the more people who see Legos used in creative ways, the more people will buy Legos.

2. How come Britney Spears doesn't own the mutherfucking copyright to her own body? How come celebrities -- naked or otherwise, are fair game (quite literally "fair use") but a Lego character -- oh we need to keep that top secret!

3. If Britney Spears really wants to keep her vag off the internet -- she should probably copyright and trademark it. Apparently U.S. Courts respect the symbols (c) and TM but not the rights of women to own the images of their own bodies. Fine, Britney should trademark her vag and anytime it shows up in the tabloids she can sue for infringement.

4. Alternatively, Britney could hang a little Lego block in front of her vag when exiting a car -- that way, at least corporate counsel for Lego would fight to keep the picture out of the tabloids (Nobody snaps a photo of our Lego blocks damnit!).

5. The intellectual property insanity from Lego comes just 8 days after a jury fined a college student $675,000 for illegally downloading 30 songs. That works out to $22,500 per song (which can be purchased for 99 cents each). Look, I'm no Johnnie Cochran, but it seems like there is a concept called proportionality. The guy downloaded something that is worth less than a Snickers Bar and the RIAA said, "Buy me a Prius for each violation mutherfucka!"

Again, let me get this straight -- the punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez were something like 2 to 1 (for every $1 in compensatory damages, Exxon was fined $2 in punitive damages). And the U.S. Supreme Court said, 'Whoa, Whoa are you CRAZY -- any punitive damages over 1 to 1 are excessive. Yet the RIAA was essentially granted punitive damages of 22,500 to 1. Fuck that and fuck the RIAA and fuck the major labels who invented DVD's just to sell their entire catalog twice -- only to discover that SURPRISE, digital anything can easily be sent around the web.

I don't know whether intellectual property wants to be free or not. But I do know that Lego and the RIAA and their lobbyists shouldn't be the ones deciding it either.

Here's the offending Lego video.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Utopias, the 1950s, and Modern American politics

Okay so everyone has their different idea of utopia.

But it seems to me that a compelling vision of utopia for a lot of people would be:
1950s stability, sense of personal responsibility, and high standard of living -- but with 21st century gender roles, racial equality, and diversity.
Imagine the 1950s -- stable families, 4th of July barbecues, deeply internalized sense of work and personal responsibility -- but without all of the 1950s bullshit: sexism, women confined to the home, racism, jingoism, and violence. Imagine swing dancing, social clubs, being present with people face-to-face instead of through the computer -- but with an appreciation for equality, diversity, and difference?

Indeed in some ways, isn't that what we get in the Obama family? The Obamas are the picture-perfect 1950s family -- but now they are black, and Michelle is a high powered attorney, and the kids travel the world during the summer meeting world leaders. But in President Obama we have the responsible dad, the guy who takes his work very seriously, has integrity in all that he does, and yet also has a deep sense of family, fun, community, and country. Indeed isn't that what freaks out the fascist teabaggers and various assorted wingnuts who constitute the modern gOP -- the Obamas do the 1950s better than they ever did -- and the Obamas do it without all of the racist, sexist, oppressive baggage that characterized the 1950s.

Maybe the 1950s never really existed -- not in the Norman Rockwell way it was portrayed at least. The high standard of living was bought on the backs of the poor and the disenfranchised who were forced to be invisible (much like how democracy in ancient Greece was bought on the backs of the slaves who afforded the wealthy leisure time for philosophy and debate). But I wonder if the ideal of the 1950s -- family, community, responsibility, is still embedded as an omega point of the American psyche?

Indeed isn't that essentially what the two parties in the United States sell us?
Republicans sell a vision of the 1950s WITH all of the racist, sexist, homophobic baggage of that era intact (and fetishized as a virtue).

Democrats sell a vision of the 1950s America WITHOUT all of the racist, sexist, homophobic, violent baggage.
Hence Republican attacks ads try to suggest that Democrats want to take us back to the 1960s. [Not true.]

And Democratic attack ads try to suggest that Republicans want to take us back to the dark days of racism, sexism, and intolerance. [True.]

Few people truly want to go back to the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s -- those were some weird fucked up eras. I'd take the 1990s again -- but the 1990s were really the first redo of the 1950s -- but with a Democratic vision of prosperity, diversity, and tolerance. And 2000-2008 was also a 1950s redo -- but the Republican version complete with cold war paranoia, militarism, hate, and discrimination as national policy. Many pundits, in examining elections involving Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Gore, McCain, and Hillary Clinton, suggested that the two parties were re-fighting the 1960s. But really I think American politics right now is centered around defining two different visions of the 1950s.

Update #1. For me, this Modern Love article from the NY Times makes an interesting companion piece to this post.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Life You Can Save: the moral politics of the health care debate

Imagine: Barack Obama and a group of Republican lawmakers are having a beer summit to talk about health care....

But let's say there had been a lot of rain recently and so a small lake formed on the White House lawn. And suddenly the participants in the beer summit look over and see a little girl drowning in the lake that formed on the White House lawn.

They have a moral obligation to save her life, correct? Obvious, right?

That's the point that moral philosopher Peter Singer makes in his book, “The Life You Can Save." Singer makes a series of points -- the logic of which is ironclad:

First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

Singer is talking about international aid, but his points could easily be applied to the health care debate in the United States.

So let's go back to the beer summit analogy: Let's suppose that instead of being 50 feet away, the girl drowning in the lake is 500 feet away -- let's say she's across the street. But if the people at the beer summit get up from their table -- there is still time to save her. They have a moral obligation to save her correct? Again, the moral obligation of the situation is obvious to the point of being ridiculous.

Now imagine that she's not 500 feet away -- she's 500 miles away, and she's not drowning in a small lake, she's drowning because she has cystic fibrosis and her lungs are filling with fluid and she has no health care. But if the people at the beer summit act immediately -- they can still save her life. Again, they obviously have a moral obligation to save her life.

See that's the thing, Republicans (and Blue Dog Democrats) see the girl drowning in the lake, it's in their power to save her, and they walk right on by. In fact Republicans make a virtue out of letting people drown, of letting people suffer and die because they lack health insurance. Because Republicans worship the false idol of Laissez-Faire Capitalism -- the moral calculus that the rest of us follow ("if it is within your power to save a human life you have a moral obligation to do so") -- falls on deaf ears with them.

[And don't give me any BS about how 'Republicans really like health care they just want the market to provide it.' We have a market based system right now and 48 million Americans don't have health insurance. Republicans are fine with that because the Strict Father Model worldview they subscribe to says that poor people deserve to suffer and deserve to be punished in this way -- in order to teach them important moral lessons. Applied to the current health care crisis in our country the strict father model is sociopathic but Republicans seem incapable of seeing the world any other way.]

So just to be clear, let me translate Peter Singer's 3 points above as they apply to the current health care debate:

First premise: Suffering and death from lack of medical care is bad.

Second premise: If it is in within Congress's power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Third premise: By approving legislation to create universal health care, the U.S. Congress can prevent suffering and death from lack of medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Conclusion: Therefore, if Congress fails to pass universal health care, they are doing something wrong.

The health care debate in Congress is not just a piece of legislation, it's a moral test of our nation. Failure to pass universal health care at this point is a moral evil, akin to letting others drown whom we have the power to save.