Institutional Fluidity

I am a student of history. That’s what I do. I love it. I love the digging and the finding. I love the aggregation of large amounts of information and working to put the pieces together into a story that makes sense of all of the stuff. Piles of papers, notes, clippings, books, texts, documents, in the last year these have become my life.

I know it is going to be some time, quite a long time, until a historian is really able to make something coherent out of the mess that is the 2016 campaign season, but I am going to put forth a thought as a jumping off point.

Let me say first that I do not think the two-party system is going anywhere anytime soon. The only way that such a thing might happen would be if as older party loyalists pass on, younger generations, such as millennials,  refuse the temptation to power that the two major parties provide. The easy part is resisting the temptation. What proves infinitely more difficult is organizing any coherent opposition, and for that to happen one must find a group of people with similar interests and ideas large enough to successfully shift the balance of power. With the splintering of various degrees of laissez-faire, libertarian conservatives, socialist-leaning liberals, and moderate pragmatists who do not allow a particular ideology to frame a debate on a particular issue making up a plurality of the electorate, especially over the last few years since 2012, it seems that the time is right for a real challenge to the two-party structure. However, due to multiple divisions among unaffiliated voters, it is improbable.

Conservatives lost their chance when the Republican party failed to heed the words of Barry Goldwater concerning its adoption of Christian conservatism that began with the rise of the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell in the 1970s and the Christian Coalition of the 1980s-90s. Liberals have not yet lost their chance, but are working on it as the Democratic party perpetually juggles an infinite number of issues that always need to be addressed right now and places them all under the umbrella term “progress.” This is all assuming that the two parties continue appealing to their present constituencies.

Which brings us to the theory of realignment. This is not to suggest that this will be a realigning election, yet there are those that believe it could very well be. What I am illustrating is the fact that the two parties, though structural institutions, are fluid and forever amending themselves in order to garner more voter support. Fact number one that has to be remembered is that the primary goal of a political party is to win elections. In order to do so, a party must attract voters, and the only way to do that is to make the party attractive to the most voters possible in a given district, state, region, or country (the beauty of federalism). This one principle must be remembered when talking about political parties.

An example…

During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic party managed to splice together a diverse coalition of the white working class (labor unions), urban-ethnic minorities, African Americans, and traditional southern Democrats with memories of the Old Confederacy. This coalition managed to hold together throughout the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s and 60s. With the progression of the civil rights movement, which had been carried on parallel throughout the period, the coalition reached its breaking point at the height of the movement, from the Brown decision in 1954 on integration and ultimately the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively. White racial conservatives in the South and middle-class moderates nationwide began leaving their party and joined the Silent Majority that supported Nixon who preached, not without a little irony, the same law and order mantra heard from the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. The realignment began in the late 60s and culminated in 1994 with the Republican takeover of Congress, three decades after passage of the CRA and forty years after Brown. Since Nixon’s election, Democrats have struggled to build a lasting coalition as strong as that built by FDR.

The story is really much longer and much more interesting than presented here, but this is all to say that the parties are always on the move, always looking for ways to attract new voters, and always seeking a way to win elections.

So in a nutshell, these are (some of) the historical forces at work that make third-party contests so difficult in American politics, which brings me back to my original point, making sense of this mess that has become the 2016 campaign season.

For the Republican party, it seems too simple. The party has been absent from the executive branch for eight years and is desperate to regain power. The most blatant demonstration of the historical forces at work within the party is the nominee’s choice for vice president. Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence, an unapologetic Christian conservative with distinctly differing social views than Trump, clearly shows the strength of Christian, social conservatism within the Republican party, without which the party cannot succeed in its continued want for power. Yet, many Republicans still are not on the Trump bandwagon, and conservative independent voters seem less than excited about the party’s ticket, not to mention traditional conservative intellectuals such as William Kristol, George Will, and Charles Krauthammer.

For Democrats, the party finds itself divided much in the same way the Republican party divided during the 2008 and 2012 elections with the rise of the Tea Party. Many find themselves, for one reason or another, dissatisfied by the party. With the party’s chase for middle-class votes, working-class Democrats (primarily white) find themselves wanting things that the party is not giving them. Party loyalists lay the blame at the feet of the opposition, but that is only because the opposition has had more success in swaying public opinion in its direction and rallying those voters to the ballot box in their favor. The party has been working for nearly fifty years to figure out how best to maintain its new coalition, made up of a diverse array of people from all walks of life and origins, and the primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has shown the divisions not only within the party, but among unaffiliated liberal voters the party wants to, and needs to, attract. The selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate exemplifies the party’s strategic attempt to hold its constituency together. He is a southern Democrat (Barack Obama is the only Democrat not from the South who has succeeded in a national campaign since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, whose running mate hailed from Texas) who proclaims strong Christian values and gives a nod to the business community, while advocating for the rights of minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos, as well as the LGBTQ community.

On the surface it all seems simple, but the study of society, especially one as culturally diverse as the United States, is rarely as simple as it seems. I have been working on a question concerning this for a solid year, and I am still finding pieces that fit somewhere in a puzzle that has no clear image as a guide to the solution. Different ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, genders, generations, and class interests (just to name a few) all bring varying points of view into social discourse and fuel the political dialogue necessary in order to bring to fruition the idea of self governance. Just like the two-system, society is fluid and ever-changing. The President stole a bit of my thunder in his convention speech when he noted the framers’ cause of forming  not a perfect union, but a “more perfect Union,” a union that is always looking for ways to make itself better. Can the two parties maintain their power and stave off the challenges presented by disaffected voters in order to achieve this noble purpose? It is too early to tell, but, as I said before, it seems probable.

At the moment, a plurality of voters claim no affiliation to either of the parties. How will the parties react, and, in turn, how will voters respond? I am suffering from campaign fatigue, but I will more than likely continue to pay attention, especially come November when I cast my vote. It will not be my vote I am thinking about, though. I will be looking at everyone else’s, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long Spoons, Bowls, Food, and Feeding: An Allegory

I came across a short video today through the perusal of my Facebook feed. In order to get the full effect of what I am going to say, you’re going to need to watch it.

Source

After watching it, I posed this:

“A pretty good illustration of what is possible, but can you see another, more self-preserving solution? Once you see it, can you see that the selfless action is just as productive as the selfish one? And that it is simply a matter of choice between the selfless and the selfish?”

Being struck by its simplicity and positive message, I began to think more deeply about it, and another nagging thought planted itself in my mind, and that led to this post.

Are you ready for the thought? Sitting on the edge of your seat with intense anticipation?

Here it is…

Where did the bowl come from and how did it come to be in that place?

I get it. I get it. That is not the point of the video. The point of the video is, that through selfless action, it is possible to meet the needs of others while having your own needs met at the same time. I respect that fact. It does, however, imply the above question.

Does the answer to the implied question matter? Will answering the question solve the problem portrayed in the video and get the food into the people’s mouths?

No. No, it will not.

You might even ask me, “if it does not matter, then why bring it up to begin with?”

I am glad you asked, because, as always, I have an answer, and that answer speaks to a larger issue beyond the video, just as the video speaks to a larger issue than just getting the food from the bowl to the spoon to the mouth.

I don’t know about you and all of your friends, but I am friends with folks from wildly varied walks of life. I have male friends and female friends. I have gay friends and straight friends. I have white friends, black friends, latino friends, and Asian friends. I have friends that were born in the United States and friends that were born elsewhere. I have friends who are cat lovers and friends who are dog lovers and friends who love both. I have friends who drink alcohol and friends who don’t drink alcohol. I have friends who believe marijuana should be legal and friends who believe it should not be. I have friends who are pro-choice or pro-life or have no opinion whatsoever. I have friends who believe the Confederate battle flag should not be flown by the state and friends who believe it should be and friends who do not care one way or the other. I have friends who own guns and friends who don’t. I have friends who believe guns should be regulated and friends who believe they should not be. I have friends who believe that marriage should be only between a man and a woman and friends who believe any two people can marry regardless of gender. I have friends who believe government is based on secularism and should remain true to that basis, and I have friends who believe government is based on the word of God and should remain true to that basis. I have friends who believe in the veracity of science, and I have friends who believe in the veracity of the word of God. I have friends who are atheists and friends who are Christians and friends who have other faiths and friends who believe there to be a higher power but cannot, or do not, give that power a name.

This is not a comprehensive list of differences that my group of friends have, but I think you get my point.

I want to focus on the last division of friends, those who are atheists, Christians or of another faith in a divine being or force, or believe in a higher power but cannot, or do not, give that power a name. I want to take this varied group of friends, some of whom are quite loud in professing the absolute truth in what they believe to be true and mix this debate into the context of the video, focusing on the bowl of soup itself.

The characters in the video do not ask how the bowl got to where it did. Their only concern is getting what is in the bowl into their bodies, and how to do it. One of the characters uses the spoon to feed another, but requires help to do so, which the other characters figure out. Then the other characters see that by sharing and helping, everyone gets fed. See? Simple.

Let’s talk hypotheticals for a moment.

Suppose one of the characters, instead of working to solve the problem of getting what is in the bowl into the body, decides to proclaim, through either divine inspiration or rational thought, that they know how the bowl got to the place where it sits. Then another character challenges that proclamation, and, before we know it, the original problem is forgotten because the characters find it more fulfilling to proclaim what they know to be true and work harder to convince others that their idea is the truth. Then, let’s say that one of the characters succeeds, after a lengthy amount of time, to convince all of the other characters that their truth is the right truth and they all agree on it. Already hungry and malnourished, they are even more so and more weak than they were before. They are so weak they cannot find the collective strength to pick up even one spoon together, but the original problem still remains, even though they found the truth.

Or…

Suppose we have the same instance as just above, one character proclaims an idea concerning how the bowl came to be where it is and another challenges their assertion. While the two are arguing over their ideas and the other characters get distracted by the debate, one of them figures out a way to get the contents of the bowl into their mouth and eats the contents as the others’ concerns remain distracted, and leaves nothing for them.

Or…

The same instance occurs. An argument ensues, taking attention away from the original problem. One of the characters figures out how to get the contents of the bowl into the body, tries to get the others’ attention, but fails to do so because they cannot overcome the zeal of the arguing parties. So the character waits passively until the parties come to a conclusion so the solution to the original problem can be shared, and by that time, all of them are too weak to utilize the spoon, even collectively.

Or…

The same instance occurs with the same argument, taking attention away from the original problem. The same character figures out a solution to the problem of getting the contents of the bowl into the body and jumps into the middle of the argument, and points out that they all can be fed. They all see the solution and that it works, but they are so zealous in their need to be correct concerning the bowl, they refuse to care about the contents anymore.

Or… (I know you are probably losing patience, but bear with me)

The same instance occurs with the same argument. Attention turns to the bowl itself rather than getting the contents from the bowl into the body. The same character figures out how to get the contents from the bowl into the body, jumps into the middle of the argument, points out the solution to the others, and the others reconcile their differences so that they can learn the solution to the original problem and take in the contents of the bowl and be nourished.

Or…

Well, these scenes can vary any number of ways, an infinite number of ways, to be sure. However, with all of those infinite possibilities, not a single one of them addresses the original and most pressing problem. They all focus on the bowl and its place rather than the contents of the bowl and how to get the contents from the bowl into the body. The problem is lost in a sea of disarray and all because of a disagreement that cannot, in all likelihood, be definitively proven one way or the other.

By focusing on the contents of the bowl and the need to get those contents into the body, a solution was found and shared. The solution took not only deliberate thought but also deliberate action in order for it be achieved.

Do not let loud voices that proclaim in one way or another how something came to be distract us from the central problem. Be deliberate. See the problem clearly as it originally presents itself and work toward a constructive solution that brings a benefit to all of the parties that are affected by the problem at hand.

With each constructive solution to a problem that provides a benefit to all involved, a little more peace finds its way into what can be a peaceful world. Pray or meditate to find guidance or seek answers to larger questions through rationality. However, do not let those practices distract us from seeing the problem and finding a constructive solution.

That’s kind of the whole idea anyway, right?

There is no doubt that there are plenty of questions that are implied by the video or assumptions made by the viewer and vice-versa. Anyway, that’s what I see when I watch this video. What do you see?

Challenges

I keep reading and hearing things like this:

It is not a gun problem. It is a people problem.

Or…

It is not a gun issue. It is a societal issue.

This is typically followed up by…

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

And I have quite a few friends and acquaintances that are gun owners. Some are members of the National Rifle Association and others are not. All of them, I believe, are responsible gun owners. I have not seen or heard anything to the contrary to believe or think otherwise.

I also read and hear things like this:

Guns are responsible for this massacre and that shooting.

Or…

Gun violence is rampant in our society. It is a gun issue and a social issue.

This is often followed by loud cries for gun control legislation or action by the president.

Then it all goes away quietly after a time like a receding tide only to predictably return, just like the tide, following the next shooting incident.

Why is that?

Could it possibly be that both sides of the argument have some merit?

Yes. Yes, they do.

Violence is a societal issue. Violence is not just isolated to those instances where a firearm is used. Violence uses many tools, often the tool that will do the most damage at the time that is most readily available, be it a gun, a knife, a hammer, a car, a screwdriver, a shovel, a 2×4, a fist, a foot, a curb…anything really. Violence occurs when a white individual shoots a black individual and when a black individual shoots a white individual. It occurs when a straight individual beats a gay individual with a tire iron. It occurs when a man beats a woman with a belt or his fists. It occurs when a woman runs over a man with a car. It occurs when a cisgendered individual stabs a transgendered individual.

These are all violent acts using tools of one kind or another to facilitate those acts. Do any of these tools need to be outlawed? Of course not.

Do folks that want to use these tools for what they were designed to do need to be taught how to use them before they use them? Absolutely.

No responsible father is going to let their son wield a hammer or screwdriver without first showing the boy the tool’s intended purpose and how to use it correctly. When the father sees the boy using the tool in a way for which the tool was not designed, the father corrects the son in one way or another with the hopes that it will not be done again.

It’s like a tool that I have come to be able to use pretty well, a chef’s knife. First I was taught how to use it, how to hold it in order to prevent an accident, and how to position the fingers on my other hand to help prevent injury. I’ve even been harmed by myself and others that have carelessly used a chef’s knife, and I have the scars to prove it on each of my thumbs. With my education and experience of using a knife, both professionally and in my own home, I am able to show others the misuse a knife where an accident will more than likely occur if respect for the tool is not shown.

And that leads me to the point concerning these tools, especially guns.

Respect.

I see pictures and videos of the use of firearms. I glean from friends’ conversations their appreciation of their firearms and how much they enjoy the activities in which they use their guns, be it hunting, skeet shooting, or going to the firing range for target practice and further training. Yet, of all of those friends that talk about their guns, only one…one of them routinely discusses the importance of learning and practicing respect for the tool. Only one of them regularly calls out the irresponsible use of the tool by other gun owners.

That is the one single thing I want to see more of when it comes to gun ownership. Just like me sharing my experience with others concerning the respect of using a household chef’s knife, why don’t gun owners share their experience with respect of owning, caring for, and using a firearm? You better believe that should I ever decide to post a video of me actually using a knife that a disclaimer concerning the years of practice and accidents and blood and lost fingertips and patience is going to accompany it, because I do not want someone that is inexperienced to see what I might do with a knife and decide to try it, especially if the blade is coming within centimeters or millimeters of the fingers on my other hand.

To quote Uncle Ben from the Spiderman movie:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Yes, accidents happen. There is no disputing that. Like I said, just take a look at the tip of my left thumb to see that. Remembering the accident, how it happened, what you were doing when the accident took place, and sharing the experience of the accident and lesson learned can, and most often will, help another avoid an accident, which usually occurs during a period of time when focus is taken from the performed activity and placed somewhere else. In essence, we share our respect for the tool in order that others may adopt the same respect.

I call on those experienced gun owners to share the respect they have for their firearms with others in the hopes that folks will learn the responsibility one must assume if someone wishes to own and use a gun. I also call on gun owners to hold other gun owners, gun sellers, gun lobbies, well…anyone that has anything to do with guns to hold each other to the same responsibility. Those gun owners I know are responsible, yes, but, as we can clearly see, there are those that are, shall we say, less than responsible with their firearms and need to be held accountable before an accident can take place. If you do not want the government doing it for you, then do it yourselves.

I’ve used the term respect with respect to firearms and the responsibilities therein. There is an altogether different area with which the term needs to be used in this writing.

Violence.

What is the most violent action you can think of? For me, it the taking of another human’s life. This also coincides with the most egregious form of disrespect, essentially having no respect for another human’s right to live at all. This is not a coincidence. Violence of any degree equates with disrespect. Period.

Let me be perfectly clear. Disagreeing with someone does not automatically mean that there is disrespect. I disagree with people all the time. It does not mean that I do not respect them, their right to an opinion, or their right to express it freely. Why do I respect that? Because I have the right to believe that their opinion is wrong and the right to engage them in conversation and debate. Where disrespect comes into the equation is when anger ensues, and though not all anger grows into violence, it is always the starting place.

Talk about something that can be hard to do, well for me anyway. Talking with someone that I know in my heart of hearts to be wrong while at the same time maintaining my composure and respect for the individual and continuing to talk to the them rather than at them. In the past, admittedly, I have failed at this more than I have succeeded, but I am continually working to turn over a new leaf. If I find that I cannot maintain my composure and that the conversation is not going anywhere but in circles, I walk away…most of the time.

Anyway, back to the point…

Violence.

Respect.

Just like a child needs to be taught to respect the responsibilities of using a tool, a child must be taught to respect other people, even those that are different in one way or another…a respect of their basic humanity.

With respect, there can be no violence. Think about it. How can you commit a violent act against something or someone you respect? Even the smallest, most basic amount of respect, that people have the right to live without physical harm or mental anguish.

As I said before, anger breeds violence, and the anger that breeds that violence is the result of an animosity produced by an overt slight or a slight that is inferred by the recipient of a particular action or statement.

When I feel slighted and I can feel anger growing within me I know it is time to take a step back and regroup and compose myself or to just simply walk away from the confrontation. Not to walk away from it for good, because until a conflict finds a resolution most of the time, for me, that breeds resentment which can turn to bitterness and then to anger, which I have come to find is in no way productive whatsoever.

This, I firmly believe, is the key to finding a way to reduce violence. The first step is to look at yourself critically. There are not many things that are more difficult to do. Then ask yourself if when you communicate with people, are you talking to them or are you talking at them? Ask yourself if getting angry at the other side of the conflict, be it an individual or a group of people, is going to do anyone any good. Is it going to do anything more than raise your level of stress?

Then challenge another person to do the very same thing, and so on, and so forth. Like the bumper sticker says:

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Will violence among human-beings ever be eradicated? Probably not. Will massacres carried out with firearms and other weapons ever cease to exist? Doubtful.

Though I cannot help but think that every single impossibility that has ever become possible began small with seemingly infinite challenges standing in its way.

The wildcard is the same object as the challenge itself. Humanity.

An Apathetic Thought

It was hardly twelve hours after the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church occurred when I jumped online after having my first cup of coffee on Thursday morning. I saw the posted articles and statuses of folks on my news feed concerning the shooting and had a rather guilty thought.

See, the last thing I do most every night before I go to sleep is I tap on the email icon on my phone and have a final glance at any emails that have been sent my way. Usually, they end up being something that I do not read and I delete them, which is exactly what I did that night.

However, I recalled that one of the emails was a breaking news update from the New York Times and that the little preview stated that there was a shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

I am going to share something with you that I think is strikingly grim and also not altogether uncommon…

My first thought was “oh great, another shooting…” Then I hoped that those I know living in the area were okay. Then I picked up the book I am currently reading, read some, and went to sleep. Then the morning comes…

Within seconds of checking my news feed, I was updated on the carnage that took place in that church in Charleston. A man (and I use the term loosely) gunned down a group of people gathered in worship and fled. The suspected shooter was later identified and found to be white, and the victims were identified and found to be black.

Within hours, really probably minutes, after the shooting, people began arguing with one another over various aspects of the incident they identified as most important such as the following:

The shooter was motivated by racial hate.
The shooter was motivated by hate of Christians and the Christian faith.
The shooter is crazy or mentally ill.

Hyperbolic rhetoric ensued on all sides. Exclamation points and capital letters sprouted all around, and people went about doing what they do best; they set up camp by drawing all of those with concurrent frames of mind to their side and made themselves distinct from the opposing side.

I don’t really want to get into the arguments of any side at this point other than to share my two cents put forth in the great social network debate:

There is one thing, and one thing alone, in my humble opinion, that we can glean from the news reports on this kid, Dylann Roof. He’s not crazy. He knows right from wrong. He ran in the hopes of not getting caught. His mental state should not be the focus of the discussion, but rather his motivations.

That was yesterday morning, and as far as I know, the shooter has not come forward and made public his motivations since he was apprehended.

What I want to focus on is my first thought upon learning that there was a shooting in Charleston…

“Oh great, another shooting…”

That was my first thought. THAT was my FIRST thought, followed by the side thought of hoping that those I know living there were okay and unharmed, followed by rolling over and going to sleep.

As I have gotten older and a little more mature (I stress “a little”), I have come more and more to abhor violence. I guess you could say that I am a pacifist, though I am not sure I would label myself as such. Yet even with my abhorrence of violent acts, I was able to rest comfortably and peacefully knowing that there was a shooting in another part of the world.

Why is that?

I am not a psychopath or sociopath. I feel empathy and sympathy. I even work to feel those “pathies” toward others with whom I do not readily identify or associate or know. Regardless of that work, I still find that apathy somehow finds a way into my heart and way of thinking.

One answer to the above question is that violence in some form or another is occurring anywhere at any time or at all times. If I allowed all of these acts of violence to keep me up at night I would never know sleep, or if I allowed these acts to constantly lay on my heart, I would never know peace. So in order to sleep or to find peace, I put those acts out of my mind.

I’d like to think that that is the answer I am looking for, but I cannot help but consider that there is another answer that is more appropriate, like this one:

Violence is occurring all the time in various places. It is part of the human experience, always has been, always will be, so why lose sleep over it?

That is probably a more apt response concerning my state of mind two nights ago, and I am pretty ashamed of it.

Even with the personal shame I feel, that is an all to common response, and it is accepted in society today. Think about it. An individual, such as myself, can willingly choose to feel apathy toward violence or an individual violent act and it is seen as acceptable and justified by another person or a group of people, and I am ashamed of that, too.

History: Getting All the Books, Reading All the Pages, Learning All the Stories

I am over 500 pages into the reading lists I have received from professors for the courses I am taking in the upcoming Fall. Mercifully, the professor for my summer class responded to my email asking him about a reading list stating that he would be sending out course information and readings (mostly journal articles) a week or two before class starts in late June/early July.

Over the weekend, we took a trip to the bookstore and I happened upon another title on my reading list and scooped it up, increasing the page count to over 3,000 with a few more titles to find before August arrives.

It’s always exciting reading history. No matter how much one may read on a given topic or period something new always pops up and adds to the narrative. Learning something new about a particular idea, person, or place adds to the understanding one has and adds color to the picture that has already been painted, making it a little more vibrant and adding a little more depth.

It’s a rainy, dreary day, so I am going to try and knock out a couple hundred more pages today. Though I am not particularly excited about the period into which I am currently delving, it is a period crucial to the understanding of other periods which I do find interesting. It is fascinating to see and to learn how the stories of some continually impact the lives of others that do not live in the same place or time.

History is an excellent reminder that we do not live our lives in seclusion. We are in it together for the long haul, and just as stories we act out day-to-day are influenced by past characters and ideas, so, too, will be the stories written in the future along with the narratives we leave behind.

Fascinating? It should be.

Normally Acceptable

The other night, I kept thinking and thinking about what I read before going to sleep and that prompted this post. I’m still thinking about it; wondering if there is a way to answer the questions I left at the end. I want to try to answer those questions and investigate this idea of normal, because, well, we all try so hard to individualize ourselves and separate from the herd. In small ways, we are successful. We differentiate ourselves and we give ourselves labels that provide some division, some distance, from others’ identities. However, most of us still remain within the realm of normal.

Why is that?

Why do we seek to be different, even in the most innocuous ways, but, at the same time, we voluntarily stay within the bounds of unwritten rules?

Is it a comfort thing? Is it an issue of stability and security? How do we set the boundaries on what is normal and acceptable when it comes to living out our individuality within a social group? How do we balance the scales between the consistency of normal and the variability of individuality? How do we measure and compare being different with being too different? Where do these unseen boundaries, unwritten rules, and unspoken measures come from?

Those are a lot questions, so maybe you can see why I am so jumbled up. Most of these are issues I think about, and have thought about, for a long time. Even for a group of professed nonconformists to normal rules of greater society, that group has rules that are unwritten and unseen boundaries that are not to be crossed if one wishes to remain a nonconformist. So, even in their nonconformity, there is conformity; there is a standard.

There are some that say screw the rules, let’s all live our own lives, but I believe that to be too simplistic. I do, however, believe that if one tries hard enough, one can find a niche within which to socialize and find a level of comfort, really, in essence, to feel, dare I say, normal, or would it be better to replace normal with accepted?

I am sure there will be more to come concerning this strand of thought. If you have all the answers, or even just one or two, feel free to share them with me and with the few readers that grace these posts with their presence.

The Panopticon, Santa Claus, and Stanley Kubrick

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am reading quite a bit and have begun to delve into the world and theories of Foucault. Currently, I am reading Discipline & Punish and just finished the chapter on the panopticon. There is quite a lot to wrap one’s head around within this chapter, but it is the final question asked that sticks with me, which demonstrates the point being made.

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” -Foucault, Discipline & Punish, translated by Alan Sheridan.

I suppose a little background is necessary to understand. Through the book, Foucault illustrates how the physical punishment of the Middle Ages up through the monarchies of the 18th century began to transform, with the thinking of the Enlightenment, into a more subtle form of discipline that focuses less on the body and more on the mind and behavior of the subject being disciplined. That is the gist that I get from it, anyway.

The panopticon is an architectural design that facilitates this relatively new disciplinary form, involving a circular building, hollow in its center with a tower in the middle allowing those being disciplined to be observed at any time and/or all times. The individual cells within the building that holds those being disciplined are able to be viewed at any time by the observer in the tower. However, those in the cells cannot see those who are surveilling them. The “major effect” being “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent disability that assures the automatic functioning of power.” The tower, not necessarily being occupied at all times (though the observed do not know that), serves to portray an unending process of surveillance and observation.

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The Panopticon Source

Foucault expands on the idea of the theoretical “mechanism” of the panopticon, “it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use,” showing how the separation of those to be observed into individual units and the constant observation performed on, not only convicts in prisons, but also, workers in factories, military service members, students in schools, patients in hospitals, etc. The observing parties, be they prison guards, teachers/professors, military leaders/commanders, job foremen/supervisors, religious leaders, etc… represent the rules and protocols that the observed are expected to follow and work to engrain those rules and protocols into those being observed.

As I ruminated on this, the quote referenced at the top, and this idea as well, “…in order to be exercised, this power has to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible,” I had a thought. Santa Claus. Yep, that was my thought. Santa Claus is the panopticon. Think about it. “He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

So, the idea of the panopticon, or the mechanism, has become a naturally conditioned phenomenon in our society. There is a lot said for the perceived, unending surveillance perpetrated by the government. We wax endlessly concerning the infinite presence of Big Brother. We exclaim from the mountaintops the right to privacy. Yet, for any number of reasons, we allow ourselves to be observed or surveilled in the most intimate of settings in order to feel safe and to know that our society is secure and stable.

Any number of reasons. The primary reason is for stability. Word has it that in order for a society to function, there must be stability. In order to create stability, norms have to be established. In order for norms to be established, there has to be a specific consensus on what is to be considered normal. Once the norms are established, they have to be codified and the norms enforced. Once this happens, norms become rules. In order for the dynamics of power within a group of people to remain stable and unchanging, the rules governing said group must be developed, observed, practiced, and enforced.

What better way is there to enforce societal norms and rules than to teach young children about a man that “knows if you’ve been bad or good,” and if the young children are not good, their behavior will be rewarded negatively; in other words, they will be disciplined. If the children adhere to the rules, they will be rewarded positively with gifts and such. Even though Santa is not there, he is there, and he is always watching, ever vigilant to ensure stability within the group.

We are conditioned for this never-ending observation and surveillance. We accept it, most of the time, without question, because to question is to challenge the authority performing the observation, and challenging authority is to promote instability. Instability provides for the upsetting of the established dynamics of power within a group of people; it is, therefore, frowned upon. So to borrow a title from Stanley Kubrick of a movie that I have never seen, we operate in our society with our “eyes wide shut.” This is something to consider the next time Big Brother is brought up in terms of government surveillance. The government is a visible mechanism of power, and can, therefore, be directly protested. There are powers unseen and unheard that can, and probably should, be scrutinized and protested as well, though it is difficult to protest intangible power. These powers are submitted to voluntarily by most of us with our eyes wide shut, yet, they permeate much deeper than any surveillance the government can perform. Our very souls, our very character is affected by them, and, most of the time, is done so without question because of our conditioning to social stability and the normal that is enforced through them.

That leaves me begging a question or two that I will not answer here. If something is to be considered normal and stable, why does it need rules enforced in order to continue its stability? Doesn’t the necessity for rules negate the very meaning of what is to be normal and what is to be stable?

A Change in the System

As I sit here waiting for the snow to start falling again, I’m thinking about this article I just read concerning a certain presidential hopeful. I’m not going to post the article here or talk about the particular hopeful candidate. I think we are all a little tired of campaigning and electoral politics, especially in my home state of North Carolina. We just finished with a very bitter and what seemed like a never-ending campaign season.

Now, I love politics. I do. I especially enjoy studying political history. What I am not a fan of is current electoral politics. Emotions get involved and warp the debate that should be based on reason. Then the shouting and finger pointing start, along with snide and pithy remarks that go on and on and on and on and on. It gets old and boring and accomplishes nothing beyond expanding the commenters’ own ego and hubris. We’re all guilty of it. I know I am, at least, and I admit it. Why is it so damn hard for others to do the same?

Imagine how much more civil the process can be if we set our egos and emotions aside and simply talked to one another concerning our opinions. If we stopped allowing politicians and their ilk to bring our emotions into the varied debates, they would stop. If we turned off our televisions and radios when their emotion provoking advertisements came on, they would stop spending money to have them broadcast. The web ads are more difficult, but are easily ignored, and sometimes can be blocked.

The fact of the matter is that politicians themselves, as well as their biggest supporters, have more than enough ego to push their side of the debate. It is our job, no, our responsibility to take their ego out of the equation and attempt to work the problem out rationally, without the influence of emotion or ego.

Another fact is that a particular political platform is not going to please or benefit everyone. Let’s get real about it. According to the United States Census Bureau, the total population for the United States plus Armed Forces overseas through January 2015 was 320,366,579 people. 320. Million. People. That’s a lot of people to please. A lot. Of people. To please. A lot of personalities to influence. No one person, no one party, no one policy, no one law is going to please or influence them all.

Oh? We are a representative democracy? or a Federal Republic? or a Constitutional Republic? Whatever label you want to put on it? So, it takes a majority to set policy and such, a majority being 50% plus 1. Half of 320,366,579 is 160,183, 289.5. That’s still 160 million people to influence or persuade.

But not all of those 320 million people are eligible to vote. Okay. According to the United States Election Project, the voting age population was at 245,712,915 people for the general election of 2014. Half of that is 122,856,475.5. That’s still a lot of egos to influence. But, only 81,687,059 ballots were cast for the highest office on the ballot. Only two-thirds of those even eligible to vote cared enough to do so.

Though not a presidential election year when more voters go to the polls, these numbers illustrate a couple of possibilities, one of which being apathy. People just do not care. Another is that a lot of folks assume that their congressional representatives will win their seats with little to no contest. The incumbency rate averages safely over 80% for representatives and over 75% for senators, so voters tend to stay home for midterm elections thinking their vote will not sway too much one way or the other.

The last possibility that I will mention here goes along with the first possibility that people just don’t care, and that is voter fatigue. A lot of us are just tired of elections. The election cycle never, ever ends. Campaigning never goes away. It is an endless and vicious cycle, and we are tired of it. l say “we,” because I do not think I am alone in this. I no longer watch the news, and very rarely listen to, or read, it much anymore. Well, I probably read or listen more than the average person, but not anything like I used to do. It’s not news anymore. There is little “new” in the news. It is the same story with different characters and different wording, but the plot never changes. Who wants to keep track of that? And with most news outlets, especially those driven by profit motives, mixing news with opinion and commentary, the news is not news anymore. It is simply an orchestrated pandering for like-minded viewers, readers, and listeners. This pandering is nothing more than free campaign contributions given by a given media outlet to the candidate or political cause of its choice, thus continuing the already endless campaign cycle. What it almost seems like is that there is little governance occurring within our system, giving way to the tiresome cycle of unending campaign pandering and electioneering.

And that brings us back to the emotional and ego driven side of electoral politics and the necessity to go beyond the emotional and reach for the rational, to put aside egos and that intoxicating feeling of being right. We can force a better and more constructive conversation. The office seekers are not going to change the conversation for us. We have to demand it. We have to make it known that we are tired of it. The absolute best way to do so is to stop. Stop contributing to a system that does nothing but indulge your ego. Turn the channel if you watch the 24-hour news cycle. Force media outlets to report news, real news, not opinion or commentary. Use your own thoughts to construct an opinion or frame of mind rather than ruminating on something that someone else has already said. Take your own thoughts and use them when having a constructive dialogue concerning a political issue or official instead of bloviating the same tired talking points that someone else has put together. Doing so can reinvigorate our citizenry and bring about an enjoyment of participating in our primary civic responsibility of self-governance.

We” are the government, not the media or elected officials. Elected officials are supposed to represent our wants and needs. We supplement the ideas and we give the political will. It is not the other way around. The media is not there to shape opinion with commentary, but to report factual information. Hold the media to its responsibility. If you see a program giving commentary, turn the channel and do not go back to it. If you read a news article that provides commentary or opinion presented as fact, go to another website or throw the periodical in the trash.

It can be done. I am as big a political junkie as anyone I have ever met. I watched the 24-hour news cycle like it was a religion. I read the news like I could not get enough of it. I have not watched the news on television in going on three years, maybe longer. I have not consistently read news on a major media website in about the same amount of time. I may click on a link here and there if there is an article that is really newsworthy, but as far as taking one, or even two outlets as the political and civic gospel? No, I do not do it anymore.

Ask your own questions and find your own answers. With such an amazing tool as the internet, it does not take much time to do, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Scrutinize and criticize on your own terms. Stop letting others do it for you. Information feeds knowledge and knowledge is power, real power. Stop letting others dictate what information is important and take it upon yourself to do so.

Do you know what scares those in power most? It is not an armed citizenry, but an educated citizenry that has the ability to process information and use that information for its benefit. Information and knowledge can do more to challenge authority than any other weapon. And that is how you bring about change to a system that desperately needs changing.

Getting Interested…

I’ve been busy.  I met with a professor within the department to which I am applying for graduate school last week.  I’ve also been speaking a little with a friend that is wrapping up her graduate studies.  Between the two, I have a pretty good reading list worked out and have buried myself in books, pen, and paper.

A consensus between the two, the point driven especially hard by my friend, is to develop a background on the theories set forth by Foucault and other postmodernist thinkers (I disagreed with this kind of labelling before I began to read Foucault, but now that I have read a little of him, I disagree with it even more).  So, I’ve begun reading, beginning with Discipline & Punish.  At first I was intimidated by the thought of reading modern philosophy, because, well, I have had a difficult time reading philosophy in the past, but (and maybe I am not reading quite deeply enough into it) I think I have at least a layman’s understanding of what is being said.

See, I have this fascination with motives.  I enjoy exploring unspoken motives, especially those motives that drive people who occupy positions of power.  As I wrote in a post a couple of weeks ago before even thinking of reading Foucault:

“As much as we respect what we believe to be pure motivations behind political decisions such as whether or not to propose and promote a bill like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we must accept that there is usually more than one story, more than one motive, when it comes to the people in the story. If we don’t, we fail to see the whole story, and we fail to fully grasp the humanity within it.”

Maybe that’s why some of what Foucault has to say, especially concerning power, institutions, and knowledge, makes at least some sense to me, and drives me to want to know more and come to a better understanding. As I said in the referred to post,”the self-serving motive is probably the purest motive there can be,”  and what can be more motivating, or self-serving, than coming into a position of power or sustaining the favorable power dynamics within a relationship that one may already have?

In order to see the basic humanity within a story, which is really all history is, this cannot be ignored.  Even those historical, or even contemporary, figures which we admire have to be scrutinized to some degree, for they were, or are, human, and like all humans they did, or do, have flaws.  On a more positive note, such scrutinization may uncover more positive and wholesome motivations.  To be fair that cannot be ruled out.

Anyway, this interests me a lot.  There will be more to come.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

It is a beautiful day, which is pretty fantastic since the weather over the past couple of days has been down right atrocious. I cannot remember the last time I saw so much wind and rain. Needless to say, I’ve missed the weather we get up here in the High Country. Like I told my wife, the bad weather days make you appreciate the beautiful days that much more, and when the weather is beautiful, it cannot be beat.

Fall is in the air. The leaves are in the midst of changing, well the ones that are still on the trees after the blustery weather of the past two days. The ambers, oranges, and yellows mixed with the still green oaks and pines covering the hillsides are beautiful and quite a sight to see. Set against the crisp blue sky, there are not many landscapes or portraits that can approach the level of splendor afforded to us during this change of seasons.

There are some things, however, that never seem to change, and are altogether ghastly in comparison to the beauty of the natural world around us. We are in the midst of an unpleasant and obnoxious midterm election season. Time is winding down to election day and the campaigns for, and against, those that hold elected office have been trudging along since the last general election nearly two years ago.

Luckily, we do not have traditional television. We stream all of our television over the internet via Netflix, Hulu, PBS, and other outlets. This has sheltered us, somewhat, from the nastiness that plagues regular television during this time of even numbered years. The campaign advertisements are endless from both of the mainstream candidates vying for the Senate seat up for grabs in North Carolina. Interest groups and PACs are shoveling money into the race as well with ads pitting different points of view into, seemingly, an all out war against one another. Watching these ads, one unfamiliar with our political culture would come to the conclusion that life itself hangs in the balance; that the human race is doomed, and that the planet is heading down a path toward irreconcilable destruction. I do not subscribe to newspapers or popular magazines, so I cannot say much concerning advertising that goes on in print media, but I doubt it paints any more of a rosy picture.

Speaking of the precarious position of life as we know it, I posted a little observation on Facebook the other day…

“Terrorists, illegal aliens, tyrannical government, ebola…seems there is always something we are supposed to fear. Those cashing in on the mass paranoia being spread through the media and social networks are only fearful of one thing…that we will, one day, stop being afraid. Until then, they are going to keep laughing all the way to the bank while everyone else huddles together in small, divided, fearful masses.”

There are other fears that I can add to the list including, but not limited to, climate change, recession, depression, gay marriage, AIDS, guns, gun control, war, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, believers, nonbelievers, Muslims, the Illuminati, the one percent, the 99%, the 45%, the welfare state, the military-industrial complex, homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, transgendered people, corporations, multinational conglomerates, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the World Trade Organization, the Federal Reserve, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Fascism, and so on and so forth.

There is a lot of shit of which to be afraid…a lot, and those seeking power bet on the fact that if they can harness that fear and disseminate it among the populace, then they can achieve power.

The worst part concerning all of this is that we allow it to happen cycle, after cycle, after cycle, after cycle. Can we blame them? Fear is an incredible motivator, probably the greatest motivator. Fear of death, fear of discomfort, fear of the unknown. Fear is motivating, but can also be paralyzing and irrational. It can promote good decisions and poor ones.

Sure, there are real fears in the world around us. We all know what it is that scares us. It is time we stop letting others tell us what it is that we need to fear. Life is too short and the world is too magnificent to do otherwise.