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“Tribal America”: How Do We Bridge the Gap Between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’?

Within hours of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, protests erupted across America. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, they brought the issue of race and policing to the front burner once again. The heat has now ignited a man who assassinated two New York police officers in a fit of calculated retaliation. The peaceful protesters condemned those murders. The police condemned the protesters, and both condemn politicians. Welcome to tribal America.

In his provocative book, Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene argues that morality evolved to solve the problem of fighting among those who had to cooperate in order to survive. Shared moral rules were evolution’s way of keeping “you” and “me” from mutual destructiveness. “You” and “me” became “we” in service to our shared needs. But when other groups showed up, “we” became “us,” a tribe opposed to “them.” Violence and destruction too often followed, and we still search for a shared morality that works across tribes.

Tribes today can be close geographically as well as virtually, aided in both cases by social media. Common values, customs and ways of thinking bind each “us” and separate it from “them.” Widely dispersed Americans angry at racial injustice form a tribe, as do strong supporters of law enforcement – no matter where any of them live.

Tribes can be helpful or harmful, depending on whether their members work to bridge the “us-them” divide or deepen it. Unfortunately, what we are seeing as police and protesters square off is unproductive.

Ferguson and New York are brush strokes on a wider canvass of tribal behavior in America. On a host of social, political, economic, environmental, and educational issues, tribes abound. Like-minded people find each other and push their agendas. To a point, that is both appropriate and useful as well as consistent with American republican government. But when it goes too far, as it does on many issues, it frays the fabric of the very society it aims to fix. When protestors loot and burn, when an angry man kills police officers, when a mayor tries to distance himself from the police, when police officers turn their back on the mayor, when a former mayor blames the president, and when the chief of police tells the mayor he has blood on his hands, what good is served?

We rightly condemn destructive tribal behavior in places as far flung as the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Why don’t we recognize and restrain it at home? If we want to cure our country, it’s time for tribes – and those who wish to lead them – to have the courage to act differently.

Tribes need to listen. This means managing their emotions and practicing the art of dialogue. Listening (not talking) and understanding (not necessarily accepting) the values and views of others helps set angry advocacy aside. Such a respectful, open stance humanizes “them” as well as “us.” When people listen to “them,” it tells them that they have been heard. Until this happens in Ferguson and New York, where most people in both tribes still claim they have not been heard, collaborative solutions will be elusive.

Tribes need to learn. Their tendency is insular – to see from the vantage point of their own biases. They defend and rationalize rather than explore their core assumptions. They get information by cherry picking from sources that are “trusted” because they agree with tribal views. They have an ax to grind, but axes cut things down rather than build them up. Protesters need to learn what the police fear and understand how many are killed or injured in the line of duty. Police need to understand what a black man feels when a police officer approaches and how to alter their own behavior during those encounters. When tribes embrace learning, their views (and then their actions) will change.

Tribes need to focus on the purposes they share with other tribes. Citizens and police both want safe streets and communities. But right now, they are dug in around their positions – what they demand from others, not what they can do for each other and by working together.

Tribes need leadership – from within and without – that does not seek personal gain by showing how much anger they share but seeks to bridge the chasm between them and other tribes. Where is the protest leadership that asks its tribe to calm down, respect the great bulk of police who are doing their best under trying circumstances, and offers solutions that demonstrate not only their own needs but the rightful demands of others? Where are the police chiefs and mayors who are willing to acknowledge and admit that they sometimes make terrible mistakes, that they can and must do better, and that they are asking their communities for constructive suggestions?

Tribes also need supportive politicians and media. The former have been too quick to take sides and inflame. The latter have been too willing to hype the conflict. What percentage of news stories on the events since Michael Brown’s death have focused on those seeking to foster better police-citizen cooperation and understanding? How much coverage have the media given to quiet healers as opposed to those whose anger makes a more enticing sound bite?

We will soon celebrate the birthday and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribal behavior was rampant in his day as well, but King was a “crossover” figure. He urged his followers to love their opponents, and his goal went beyond desegregation to a universal brotherhood. Police and protestors today could learn a lot from this man, for whom there was only one tribe, the tribe of humanity.


By: Terry Newell, Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society; The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 24, 2014

December 26, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Politicians | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Use And Abuse Of Freedom”: The Elements Of Words That Explain The Mess We’re In

Last week David Brooks had an interesting column about a couple of studies that surveyed key words in a body of writings. (No, we’re not talking about tax examiners looking for Tea Party among applications.) He describes the “two elements” that he found:

“The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

“The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently. The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent. ”

The question I have–and would have tried to answer, had not my attempts to find these studies through google led me to data bases that thwarted my efforts to access the pieces–is this: how did the word `freedom’ do?

One of the biggest changes in my adult life is what has happened to freedom, not just as a word, but as a value. It is, it seems to me, the only value Americans put much stock in. Equality, in which immigrants and labor unions invested so much energy and support and devotion during the first part of the 20th century, now seems a hostage of identity group politics. Freedom is it–it’s what we appeal to for everything, from gay marriage to Wall Street shortcuts to environmental pollution to smoking pot to war (Free Kuwait! Iraqi freedom!) These are the years of freedom triumphant, and boy, if anything explains the mess we’re in, it’s freedom. Try arguing for something in terms of Community, or Sacrifice. Go to Congress and make a case for Majority Rule, and you’ll get an earful from Ted Cruz and Rand Paul about the freedom of the minority to thwart the majority.

More than anyone, Ronald Reagan put us on this path. I can’t imagine a figure who would be able to get us to rebalance our values.


By: Jamie Malanowski, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 26, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Morality Brigade”: Our Democracy Needs To Be Protected From The Depredations Of Big Money

We’re still legislating and regulating private morality, while at the same time ignoring the much larger crisis of public morality in America.

In recent weeks Republican state legislators have decided to thwart the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in “Roe v. Wade,” which gave women the right to have an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Legislators in North Dakota passed a bill banning abortions after six weeks or after a fetal heart beat had been detected, and approved a fall referendum that would ban all abortions by defining human life as beginning with conception. Lawmakers in Arkansas have banned abortions within twelve weeks of conception.

The morality brigade worries about fetuses, but not what happens to children after they’re born. They and other conservatives have been cutting funding for child nutrition, healthcare for infants and their mothers, and schools.

The new House Republican budget gets a big chunk of its savings from programs designed to help poor kids. The budget sequester already in effect takes aim at programs like Head Start, designed to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Meanwhile, the morality brigade continues to battle same-sex marriage.

Despite the Supreme Court’s willingness to consider the constitutionality of California’s ban, no one should assume a majority of the justices will strike it down. The Court could just as easily decide the issue is up to the states, or strike down California’s law while allowing other states to continue their bans.

Conservative moralists don’t want women to have control over their bodies or same-sex couples to marry, but they don’t give a hoot about billionaires taking over our democracy for personal gain or big bankers taking over our economy.

Yet these violations of public morality are far more dangerous to our society because they undermine the public trust that’s essential to both our democracy and economy.

Three years ago, at the behest of a right-wing group called “Citizen’s United,” the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in politics by deciding corporations were “people” under the First Amendment.

A record $12 billion was spent on election campaigns in 2012, affecting all levels of government. Much of it came from billionaires like the Koch brothers and casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson —seeking fewer regulations, lower taxes, and weaker trade unions.

They didn’t entirely succeed but the billionaires established a beachhead for the midterm elections of 2014 and beyond.

Yet where is the morality brigade when it comes to these moves to take over our democracy?

Among the worst violators of public morality have been executives and traders on Wall Street.

Last week, JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s biggest bank, was found to have misled its shareholders and the public about its $6 billion “London Whale” losses in 2012.

This is the same JPMorgan that’s lead the charge against the Dodd-Frank Act, designed to protect the public from another Wall Street meltdown and taxpayer-funded bailout.

Lobbyists for the giant banks have been systematically taking the teeth out of Dodd-Frank, leaving nothing but the gums.

The so-called “Volcker Rule,” intended to prevent the banks from making risky bets with federally-insured commercial deposits – itself a watered-down version of the old Glass-Steagall Act – still hasn’t seen the light of day.

Last week, Republicans and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee passed bills to weaken Dodd-Frank – expanding exemptions and allowing banks that do their derivative trading in other countries (i.e., JPMorgan) to avoid the new rules altogether.

Meanwhile, House Republicans voted to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act in its entirety, as part of their budget plan.

And still no major Wall Street executives have been held accountable for the wild betting that led to the near meltdown in 2008. Attorney General Eric Holder says the big banks are too big to prosecute.

Why doesn’t the morality brigade complain about the rampant greed on the Street that’s already brought the economy to its knees, wiping out the savings of millions of Americans and subjecting countless others to joblessness and insecurity — and seems set on doing it again?

What people do in their bedrooms shouldn’t be the public’s business. Women should have rights over their own bodies. Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

But what powerful people do in their boardrooms is the public’s business. Our democracy needs to be protected from the depredations of big money. Our economy needs to be guarded against the excesses of too-big-to-fail banks.


By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, March 25, 2013

March 27, 2013 Posted by | Democracy | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“At The Heart Of An Ideology”: Republicans Are Causing A Moral Crisis In America

There is moral crisis afoot! So say the Republican candidates for president, their pals in Congress and in state houses. Abortion, gay marriage, contraception— contraception, for Pete’s sake — things that so shock the conscience that it’s a wonder The Washington Post can even print the words!

Here’s something I bet you wouldn’t think I’d say: They’re right. There is a moral crisis in the United States. The only thing is — they’re wrong about what it is and who is causing it.

The real crisis of public morality in the United States doesn’t lie in the private decisions Americans make in their lives or their bedrooms; it lies at the heart of an ideology — and a set of policies — that the right-wing has used to batter and browbeat their fellow Americans.

They dress these policies up sometimes, give them catchy titles like Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity.” But they never cease to imbue them with the kind of moral decisions that ought to make anyone furious. Ryan’s latest budget really is case in point. It’s a plan that says that increases in defense spending are so essential, that massive tax cuts for the wealthy are so necessary, that we must pay for them by ripping a hole in the social safety net. The poor need Medicaid to pay for medicine and treatment for their families? We care, we really do, but the wealthy need tax cuts more. Food stamps the only thing standing between your children and starvation? Listen, we feel your pain. We get it. But we’ve got more important things to spend money on. Like a new yacht for that guy who only has one yacht.

It’s hard to point to a single priority of the Republican Party these days that isn’t steeped in moral failing while being dressed up in moral righteousness. This week, for example, they are hoping the Supreme Court will be persuaded by radical (and ridiculous) constitutional arguments to throw out some or all of the Affordable Care Act. Sure, you could argue that it’s really nice to make sure 31 million people who didn’t have health care can get it. Sure you could make the case that lifetime limits are a bad thing, that women shouldn’t have to pay more for health insurance just because they’re women, that the United States shouldn’t be a country where you die because you lost your coverage when you lost your job. But then again, liberty. Let’s not forget liberty. Also, freedom.

It is a very strange thing that the people who lecture most fervently about morality are those who are most willing to fight for policies that are so immoral. They watch Wall Street turn itself into the Las Vegas strip, take the economy down and destroy people’s lives and livelihoods. To that they say, “By God we need less regulation. Get me the hose, I have things to water down!” They see a CEO of a bank or a corporation, someone who passed off all of the risk and took on all of the reward, and they say, “Get that man a bigger bonus! In fact, get him two!”

They see corporate interests flood the political system with unfathomably large sums of money, they see lobbyists defining the terms of debate, and they say, “Now this . . . this is what democracy should look like.”

They see an environmental crisis spinning out of control, the effects of climate change being felt already, the possibility of the biggest natural disaster in modern human history. To which they ask, “Anyone know if we can drill this hole any deeper?”

So yes, Rick Santorum. Yes, Mitt Romney. Yes, Paul Ryan and Republican politicians all over this nation. You are right, as right as you’ve ever been. There is a moral crisis in this country. A horrifyingly, back-breaking, bankrupt-the-core-of-this-nation style crisis. But it isn’t women or the poor or the middle class or the gay community or health-care advocates or environmentalists that are causing it.

It’s you.


By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 27, 2012

March 28, 2012 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Great Moral Decline: “Two Distinct Monologues”

Asked to explain his support for Rick Santorum in Michigan’s primary, voter Sandy Munro said, “Now what we need is a strong political leader to do something to get us out of the moral slump that we’re in.”

Mr Santorum would agree, having noted that “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.” As would Mitt Romney, who has attacked the decay caused by Barack Obama’s “secular agenda”. Newt Gingrich has gone the furthest, stating, “A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have.”

But what are these problems? When considering America’s moral decline, my first instinct was to look at the crime rate. If Satan is at work in America, he’s probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime. There are some caveats to these statistics, as my colleague points out, but I think we can conclude that crime is not the cause of America’s moral decline.

So let’s look elsewhere. Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There’s just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.

Other areas that might indicate declining virtue are also going against the perceived trend. For example, charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, “the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.” So where is the evidence of this moral decline?

Here’s one for the declinists: the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion has increased, while the number of those attending worship services has declined. And here’s another: out-of-wedlock births have increased in America so that now at least four in ten children are born to unmarried women. This is something Mr Santorum has focused on during the campaign, and he is right in pointing out that the children of unwed mothers in America tend to do worse in terms of health, schooling and income later in life.

But here’s where the real debate over America’s moral position comes into focus. As the New York Times notes, out-of-wedlock births are increasing in much of the developed world—for example, over half of babies in Iceland and Sweden are born to unwed mothers. But according to Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, “In Sweden, you see very little variation in the outcome of children based on marital status. Everybody does fairly well… In the US, there’s much more disparity.”

So out-of-wedlock birth need not correspond to worse outcomes for children. And if it didn’t in America, should we still consider out-of-wedlock births a moral problem? One could ask a similar question about religion. While rates of religious participation may be declining in America, young people today have similar moral beliefs as their parents and grandparents. So is the decline in religious observance a moral problem?

When it comes to out-of-wedlock births, the issue is complicated because discouraging these types of the births may be a more efficient way of securing children than the type of nanny-state intervention that can be found in a country like Sweden. But in general, I think the debate over America’s moral position comes down to this: Republicans want the best outcomes based on solutions that fit into preconceived notions of what society should look like. So even if there are few tangible harms that point to our moral decay, any move away from their vision of society is evidence of declining virtue. Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned with outcomes, even if that means upending the way things were (or accepting that they have been upended and cannot be restored).

So in the case of out-of-wedlock births, Republicans would probably see the increase as a moral problem regardless of the outcome. Whereas Democrats might feel more comfortable with, say, promoting a corresponding increase in stable familial relationships outside of marriage. It is a dynamic we’ve seen elsewhere recently, in regard to issues like gay marriage and contraception. And it leads to a debate over what “moral” really means. If “immoral” means “causing avoidable harm to other people” then gay marriage, pornography, sex, reality TV, soft-drug use and euthanasia are hardly immoral, even if distasteful to some.

But as we grind through the Republican primary process, it seems like the debate over morality in America has less to do with moral outcomes and more to do with a vision of how society should look based on idealistic remembrances of how things were. So people like Mr Munro and the Republican candidates believe America is in a moral slump. The odd thing is, people on the left might actually agree, though for very different reasons. They are upset by the perceived greed of the 1%, and the broad acceptance of torture and war as foreign-policy tools. In the end, the debate over morality more closely resembles two distinct monologues.

By: Democracy in America Blog, The Economist, March 2, 2012

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Democrats, Ideology, Republicans | , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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