Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Moral Politics

Hola mi Gente,
Well, now the nation knows what we New Yorkers have known for quite some time: the New York electoral process is broken -- has been for quite some time. I can’t even to wade through the cesspool of yesterday’s primary election. I can only say that 100s of thousands were disenfranchised. That New Yorkers (at least those who had their votes counted) voted overwhelmingly for a hawkish neoliberal Thatcherite.

Suffice it to say that the shit storm was so bad even a mope like faux liberal, Mayor Bill De Blasio, has called for an audit.

* * *

The Sociological Imagination

It is not what you look at but what you see.
 -- Henry David Thoreau

Most of my readers know how much I detest overly simplistic explanations. Take these for example:

  • Idiots are consistently voted into office = Voters/ people are stupid.
  • The subprime meltdown was the consequence of clueless borrowers.[1]
  • Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

I could go on ad nauseum on yo ass with a list of the foolish and narrow-minded shit people pull out of their nether regions in their quest to form opinions. I believe that the greatest postmodern challenge facing us is our inability to apply what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination (1959). Mills described the sociological imagination as the capacity to shift from one perspective to another: from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to evaluation of the national budgets of the world; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. Simply put, the sociological imagination is the capacity to view issues from both a micro and macro perspective -- inclusive of divergent points of view.

This lack of the capacity for a sociological imagination is killing us – literally.

We blame “a nation of idiots” on the election of idiots; lazily ignoring the massive propaganda machine tied to interests that want idiots in office. We blame borrowers in what is the greatest financial scam in our nation’s history, ignoring the decades of deregulation and dismantling of government insight that paved the way, not just for the subprime meltdown, but also Enron and every other corporate malfeasance, since the Savings & Loan debacle of the 1980s.

In fact, it is a common practice of neoliberals to set up government agencies for failure and then blame any failure, not on the cause (often lack of oversight--deregulation), but the very agencies they set up to fail. We ignore the fact that a gun gives people -- in a culture steeped in violence -- the power to inflict destruction like no other instrument. Sure pencils don’t make people misspell words, but let me see how many people you can shred with one pencil as opposed to an assault rifle.

::blank stare::

The genius of the neoliberal/ conservative project lies in how they have convinced you that a regressive rather than a progressive tax structure is better for you (they call it “tax relief”). It is remarkable in how it has convinced a number of you to go along with trickle-down and austerity economics -- economic theories advocating for upward shifts in wealth and income (trickle down) no credible economist has ever endorsed, and the bloodletting (austerity) that ensues when the theory fails.

As cognitive linguist, George Lackoff, has shown, our opinions are most often driven by the beliefs, or better put -- by the metaphors -- we live by (2006). Conservatives have exploited this fact for some time and that is partly the reason why people voted for Bush II or still see Hillary Clinton as something other than warped. Most importantly, it is why you vote against your own economic interests. Neoliberal operatives discovered that people vote their values, not on the issues. Therefore, if you can frame, say, “family values” in a conservative way, you have co-opted the most important metaphor we all live by -- the family.

Progressives have labored under the false notion that reason or issues should come first. Yes, issues are important, but people vote on values (frames) -- people make decisions based on emotions -- and if you can’t connect with people on values, you will never get your agenda on board. Let us take the following facts as  examples:

If, as polling data consistently shows, the mainstream is more left of center, then why aren’t these issues on the table for public discourse? Part of the answer lies in the reality that the issues have not been framed adequately. A larger part of this lack is that powerful interests invested in undermining progressive policies are now the ones driving public policy. As some social scientists have noted, we have slowly become an oligarchy. One of the ways issues are framed is through repetition. Jon Stewart, formerly of The Daily Show, made a career out of showing hilarious video clip compilations of mainstream media pundits and political leaders repeating the same emotionally charged words over and over.

Far right-wing politicians use this technique consistently. Neoconservative such as Ted Cruz frame their attack on women’s reproductive rights as a life and death moral struggle. His expressed and constantly repeated belief or frame (echoed 24/7 on mainstream news media cycles) is that as a society we are locked in a crusade against those who wish to persecute Christians. His key words include “reckless,” “immoral,” “dangerous,” and his overriding metaphor is one of war -- the war of “good” vs. “evil.”

This is a very effective way to express and embed an idea. The words come with frames of reference attached. Those frames in turn latch on to and activate deeper, subconscious frames that trigger emotions. When repeated every day, the words serve to reinforce deep frames by actually strengthening neural connections in the brains of listeners. Even if you are “smart” or consider yourself a latte-drinking, NPR-listening, sophisticated liberal, this onslaught of frames will have an impact on your thinking. At the very least, these frames serve to move the “center” of the political landscape to the right, in the process relegating progressive ideas tom the margins of the national dialog. In other words, progressive ideas and policies are not even up for discussion and whether you agree with them or not, we are all the poorer because of it.

In that way, I can stand up on a stump and yell out catch phrases such as “family values” or “tough on crime” and immediately in your brain a barrage of conservative-framed issues appear. I can blurt out, “tax and spend” and immediately conservative frames come to your mind. And this unconscious form of manipulation is how public consent is manufactured (Herman & Chomsky, 2002) rather than agreed upon in a conscious, democratic manner.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization… 


Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media (reprint ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. (click here)

Lakoff, G. (2006). Thinking points: Communicating our American values and vision: A progressive's handbook. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (You can download a PDF version of this book for free by clicking here)

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination (reprint, annotated ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] While the government sponsored mortgage giants were certainly not blameless, Federal Reserve data shows conclusively that it was private mortgage brokers, not Fannie and Freddie, who drove the subprime housing bubble: More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions. Private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year.

[2] Public opinion polls suggest that Americans are deeply suspicious of free trade agreements. A national survey by the Pew Research Center reveals the ongoing concerns Americans have regarding free trade. More Americans think free trade slows the economy down (34%) than makes it grow (31%).

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