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“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 New Politics Of Nostalgia”: Political Schizophrenia Is A Poor Guide To The Future

A specter is haunting the affluent societies of the West. Across the rich countries, and across the political spectrum, there is an unstated but palpable longing for a return to the 1950s.

This ’50s nostalgia takes different forms on the left and on the right. For progressives, the backward-looking wish is for the shared and growing prosperity when unions thrived and could enforce a relatively egalitarian social contract. Democrats in the United States and Social and Christian Democrats in Europe created systems of social insurance — they were more robust in Western Europe — that were largely endorsed by political conservatives.

On the right, ’50s nostalgia takes the form of a quest for order, social homogeneity, religious faith — or, at the least, public respect for traditional values — and strong families, sometimes defined as a return to old gender roles and a less adventurous approach to sexuality.

Neither side fully acknowledges its own nostalgia, partly because everyone wants their 1950s a la carte. The left, for example, will not brook any retreat from gender, racial or ethnic equality, any abridgement of sexual freedom or civil rights, any re-imposition of cultural conformity. The right wants no revival of inhibitions on the rambunctiousness of liberated economies and hails the decline of unions and their capacity to get in the way of labor-market dynamism.

And nostalgia for the 1950s can also split the left and the right, or create a kind of political schizophrenia. Globalization, for example, is often applauded by the left for obliterating nationalism and giving rise to an expansive and less parochial consciousness. Yet the left can also disdain the power that globalization confers on multinational corporations and the way it undercuts the bargaining clout of workers who must now compete with each other across national boundaries.

The right, particularly the more economically libertarian in its ranks, likes the way globalization diminishes the ability of national governments to enforce rules, taxes and bureaucratic inhibitions on the market. Yet many traditional conservatives dislike the free flows of immigration that globalization has let loose. They long for a firmer sense of national identity, and the kind of solidarity more homogenous societies can foster.

Worries about immigration run deep in parts of the Republican Party and pushed Mitt Romney to positions that have left him with an anemic share of the Latino vote. In the Netherlands, where politics has tended toward the pragmatic, the moderate and the practical, worries about Islamic immigration roiled the system and gave rise to the Party for Freedom, the PVV, headed by the 49-year-old Geert Wilders. Pragmatism made a comeback Wednesday as the PVV was projected to lose about half of its seats in Dutch elections.

In one sense, all of the nostalgia can be boiled down to a simple proposition: In the 1950s, most Americans and most Western Europeans had confidence that their children would do better than they had done, that they would grow up to prosper in a stable society with a growing economy. The collapse of this certainty is the prime cause of discontent, left, right and center.

In the end, of course, nostalgia is a dangerous form of politics and a kind of lie. The fact that left and right alike are ambivalent about the 1950s, albeit in different ways, suggests that bringing them back whole is not in the cards.

And it’s not possible, which is why nostalgia is always a poor guide to the future. The effects of globalization can be mitigated, but the economic developments of the last three decades cannot be repealed by fiat. The vast changes in communications technology that simultaneously bind people together and make it easier for them to retreat into their own social and political circles will not be rolled back. I see no mass movement that will get people in large numbers to toss their iPhones into the rubbish.

But understanding politics now requires an appreciation for the nostalgic roots of our current struggles. It’s not hard to understand the yearning of many of Romney’s supporters for past cultural certainties. Obama’s coalition is, in cultural terms, the coalition of the future — younger, and both ethnically and racially diverse. Yet Obama’s core pledge is to a new social compact that provides many of the guarantees of the old one.

Thus the choice in 2012 may be, more than we realize, about which parts of the 1950s we yearn for most, and whether there is any way to bring back the best aspects of an old era while leaving the rest of it behind.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 13, 2012

September 13, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Move Toward A Less Prosperous America”: Afflicting The Afflicted And Comforting The Already Comforted

Mitt Romney has chosen as his running mate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the author of an ill-conceived budget plan that he ambitiously named “The Path to Prosperity.”

In fact, Ryan’s budget plan aims to put more money in taxpayers’ pockets through massive cuts to many programs that have a direct impact on the quality of life in the United States.

There is more to “prosperity” than money in our pockets. Financial prosperity does no one any good if there is not concomitant happiness or, at least, contentment. The ability to lead a happy and satisfying life is the best measure of true prosperity. A happy life is made up of basic American values: access to health care, access to a good education, security, access to sustenance.

Given this, the happiness of our citizenry does not seem to figure into the GOP’s notion of prosperity. Our nation’s founders were wise to emphasize the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The GOP seems to have lost sight of the pursuit of happiness.

True happiness is difficult to define. It is not just short-term pleasure or immediate gratification. It transcends money. We are all familiar with the phrase “money doesn’t buy happiness.” Research shows that real happiness involves a sense of well-being, a deep connection to others, the freedom to autonomously pursue one’s interests and the ability to find personal meaning in one’s life.

Just how happy are we Americans?

Combined data from the Gallup Poll; the Heritage Foundation, the quintessential conservative think tank; the World Economic Forum and – surprisingly – the CIA, from more than 100,000 people show that the U.S. doesn’t fare well. Many countries are happier than we are, mostly in northern Europe: Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

What are the major factors that contribute to the reported happiness in these countries? Here are the top 10:

  • Individual freedom
  • Democracy
  • Governmental transparency
  • Capitalistic economies that promote individual entrepreneurship
  • Political support for workers’ rights
  • A strong work ethic with the – supported – belief that hard work pays off
  • Governmental commitment to improving the quality of life for all residents, that is universal access to health care and a quality education
  • A strong infrastructure with efficient public transportation
  • Tolerance for all ethnic groups and religions
  • A commitment to preserving the environment

These components cannot come from the private sector alone. The U.S. has many of these key components already, yet there are not only glaring omissions, but a few of these are in jeopardy from Ryan’s budget proposal. “The Path to Prosperity” is a radical example of a growing trend that subordinates the building of a society that will improve happiness and prosperity for all to the financial demands of a relatively small cadre of the very rich.

Many supporters of Ryan’s budget and other austerity plans are skeptical about whether building a society based on happiness and prosperity for all citizens is fiscally responsible. They speak of “living beyond our means.” They wail that government programs that promote happiness and prosperity for all will saddle future generations with crippling debt.

But remember the list of the happiest countries? They tend to be fiscally conservative and do not live beyond their means. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data show the U.S. deficit (10.7%) is more than double the average of that of the happiest countries. Here are the others: Denmark, 5.4%; Finland, 4.8%; the Netherlands, 5.9%; Sweden, 3%; Switzerland, 1.3%. And Norway has a 9.9% budget surplus. CIA data show that our national debt, at 59% of gross domestic product, is one-third higher than the average of 45% in the happier Scandinavian countries.

So what’s the difference between these happy, prosperous countries and the U.S.? It is simply shared sacrifice. All, not just some, of their taxpayers are willing to forgo the goals of personal acquisitiveness for the greater happiness of the country as a whole. This is the true “pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

We cannot slash our way to prosperity, as it places an undue burden on people who have caught relatively few breaks already. To extend an op-ed title from columnist Paul Krugman, the Ryan budget, “afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comforted.” It is imperative that our country’s leaders focus less on tax cuts for those who don’t need them and more on fiscally sound policies that will promote happiness and prosperity for all.


By: Jan Van Schaik, Immediate Past President of the Wisconsin Psychoanalytic Institute and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin, JSOnline, August 18, 2012

August 19, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Days Of Our Lives”: Race And Conservative Nostalgia

Reihan Salam says that cranky old white conservative nostalgics aren’t racists they’re just white people who are nostalgic for a whiter, more racist America:

One thing that is undeniably true is that American conservatives are overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly less so. As the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans has increased in coastal states like California, New York and New Jersey, many white Americans from these regions have moved inland or to the South. For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don’t share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It’s unfair to call this sentiment racist. But it does help explain at least some of our political divide.

This puts me in a mind of House Speaker John Boehner’s explicitly expressed view that the problem with President Obama is was that he and the 111th Congress were “snuffing out the America that I grew up in”.

As I said at the time, on its face it’s difficult to make sense of that. John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war? It’s difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgics like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men. In Boehner’s defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself “a black person or a woman wouldn’t put it like that.” But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up it? The tax rates were high, but at least they didn’t let Jews into the country club?


By: Matthew Yglesias, ThinkProgress, August 19, 2011

August 19, 2011 Posted by | Bigotry, Birthers, Class Warfare, Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Elections, Equal Rights, GOP, Human Rights, Ideologues, Ideology, Immigrants, Jobs, Labor, Politics, Racism, Religion, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Teaparty, Unions, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Republican Virtues”: I Don’t Think So

I’ve been mulling over a column by David Brooks on “The Politics of Solipsism” for the past couple of weeks. What he wrote is nervy to say the least. He argues that America has lost the republican virtues on which it was founded, namely, the curbing of self-centeredness in the interest of the public good. I too am a fan of Cicero, but Brooks fails in one of the primary republican virtues by not forthrightly acknowledging that Republicans, the adherents of Ayn Rand, are the ones who have most blatantly deserted these same virtues. Self interest has center stage on their platform.

Brooks praises Truman and Eisenhower, but he fails to mention that it was President Kennedy who repeatedly challenged Americans and asked them to sacrifice. He urged us to go to the moon because it was tough, not because it was easy. And when my father, Robert Kennedy, was running for president and medical students asked him who would pay for more health care for the poor, he quickly answered, “You will.”

Contrary to the Republican philosophy, summed up by Ronald Reagan, that government is the problem, John and Robert Kennedy considered politics an honorable profession and affirmed that government was the place where we “make our most solemn common decisions.”

Both my uncle and my father knew that America is at its best when its citizens are willing to give up something for others. That was the spirit in which they committed themselves to public service. Ultimately they both gave their lives in the service of their country.

Like my father and my uncle, I believe that serving the public good is the essential republican virtue. In fact I led the effort to make Maryland the first and still only state in the country where community service is a condition of high school graduation. I did this because I believe that virtue comes from habits developed, not sermons given. Aristotle said, “we become house builders by building houses, we become harp players by playing the harp, we grow to be just by doing just actions.”

Republican governors are making their mark attacking public servants. They’re laying off citizens who exemplify republican virtues like teaching in inner city schools, fighting drug cartels, and rushing into burning buildings. Why? So that those who make outrageous salaries can pay lower taxes.

Brooks says that Republicans want growth, but I see no evidence that they want growth for anyone but the most well off. Where is the commitment to education, to infrastructure, to science?

Brooks commends Paul Ryan for sending the message that “politics can no longer be about satisfying voters’ immediate needs.” And yet Ryan would give the rich even more of a tax break at a time when our taxes are the lowest in three decades.

George Washington, whom Brooks also praises, would be surprised that the rich are being asked to shoulder less of a burden. He supported excise taxes that would fall disproportionately on the wealthy. When he went to war, he brought his wife, Martha, to share the hard, cold winter of Valley Forge along with him.

The wealthy have a special responsibility. From those who have been given much, much will be asked. In a true republic, people of wealth and privilege are first in line to serve in government, go to war, contribute to the honor and glory of their country. They set the nation’s values. If what they value is money, money, money, then the country will follow.

After 9/11, George Bush asked us to shop. At just the moment when he could have called us to a cause greater than ourselves, he (apparently on the advice of Karl Rove) urged us to step up for new TVs and designer bags rather than for the public good.

So if Brooks really wants to put an end to the politics of solipsism, he must take on the Republican party itself, which has done so little to cultivate the virtues of service, sacrifice, and commitment to country.

Please don’t lecture us about solipsism and republican virtues when it’s Republicans who are the ones who have made such a virtue of self interest.

By: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Atlantic, May 22, 2011

May 22, 2011 Posted by | 911, Conservatives, Education, GOP, Government, Governors, Ideology, Politics, Public, Republicans, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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