Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Let's Not Go Back to the Past


By most contemporary standards, I count as a conservative.  I believe in a smaller government, a market economy, and the nuclear family.  I also want us to honor the constitution and protect religious freedom.  Indeed, I am a strong advocate for liberty—period.
But that does not mean I want to return to the past.  It does not even mean I want to freeze things in place.  For me, the goal is to build on the past to make for a better future.  What is wrong ought to be remedied; whereas what works should be preserved.
I remember cold winter mornings when I was a boy.  I recall how my father had to wait for our car to warm up before he could put it in gear.  I also remember collecting change to make long-distance calls at a nearby pay phone.  Neither was much fun.
More consequentially, many New York families had to escape to the Catskill Mountains during the summer in order to avoid polio.  Nor could blacks and whites marry in the south.  Neither might minorities vote without fear of lynching.  Some folks even had to worry about putting food on the table.
Why would anyone want to cancel out modern medicine, or return to an economy dependent on manual labor, or keep women barefoot pregnant and in the kitchen?  None, but the most obstinate troglodytes, ask to go back to a horse and buggy era that did not have indoor plumbing.
Liberals are fond of the canard that only they value progress.  This, however, is an egregious untruth.  To begin with, progressives are often backward looking.  Their ideal is the rustic village of yesteryear in which everyone knew each other and theoretically acted as if they were family.
In fact, liberals hate actual families.  Many want to see them dismantled.  Conservatives, on the other hand, want to strengthen domestic relationships.  They want husbands and wives to be deeply committed to each other and their children.  They ask intimates to work together for their joint benefit.
This most emphatically does not imply plunging women into conjugal servitude.  Most conservatives favor marriages in which the spouses are moral equals.  They want both men and women to be fulfilled, which means that their relationship must be different from that of their great-grandparents.  In other words, it must change.
Liberals also accuse conservatives of being insensitive racists.  They forget that it was Republicans who won the Civil War and fought for school integration.  Folks like me are appalled by segregation and hypocritical tolerance.  We categorically want equal rights for all.
Yet this too entails change.  Instead of the rigid racial politics of today, the same rules should apply to everyone.  We so-called “traditionalists” don’t want affirmative action, but colorblind action.  Rather than tokens and political correctness, we insist on honesty and mutual respect.
Liberals are forever accusing conservatives of wanting to reinstate Jim Crow, whereas it is they who fight to install correctives appropriate to the past rather than the present.  For instance, they want to protect fraudulent voting, despite the fact that blacks now often vote in greater numbers than whites.
Conservatives likewise believe in education.  They desire a society where scholastic opportunity is available to everyone.  What they oppose—and strenuously oppose—is indoctrination.  They want a marketplace of ideas, not a one-size-fits-all liberal mentality.
Conservatives are dedicated to equal opportunity!  This, however, requires more than slogans or government imposed regulations.  We need a change of heart.  All lives matter.  Not just Black lives.  Or women’s lives.  Or gay lives.  Instead of social compartmentalization, everyone’s human rights have to be respected.
How is this a return to the past?  In what way does it cement us into the lifestyles of our ancestors?  A decentralized society, based on liberty and respectful relationships, depends on us becoming more enlightened and civilized.  We need to grow up, if we are to live like genuine adults.
This is a forward-looking agenda, not a backward looking one.  Although it reveres moral principles derived from the past, it asks us to become the kind of people capable of implementing them.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University


Slogans and Metaphors


We humans pride ourselves on our intellects and capacious knowledge.  We like to imagine that we think things through so as to come to clever conclusions.  In fact, despite our large brains, we often turn them off.  This is especially the case with regard to politics.
Instead of looking at facts and respecting logic, we are frequently mesmerized by slogans and metaphors.  Catchy phrases and misleading analogies lead us into simple-minded mistakes.  Although we believe we are being shrewd, we are actually children being steered by crafty pied pipers.
Not long ago, my wife, who is a medical sociologist, was reading a book on the social history of cancer.  As is her custom, she called my attention to a detail that surprised her.  She explained how a so-called “war on cancer” got started and why it was later sidelined.
What became apparent as the complications in treating cancer multiplied was that the project was different from literal warfare.  The enemy was less clearly defined and the modes of battling it were not fully developed.  To assume, therefore, that pumping additional funds into the conflict would produce victory was a miscalculation.
As I listened, I immediately thought of another ill-conceived metaphor encapsulated in a politicized slogan.  This was the alleged “war on poverty.”  President Lyndon Johnson hoped to mobilize the nation’s resources, as had been the case during the Second World War, to achieve a complete triumph over destitution.
Obviously, a country as wealthy as the United States did not have to tolerate privation.  If we concentrated our efforts, we could plainly bring everyone into the middle class.  Except that poverty was not a well-defined enemy like the Nazis and the weapons needed to excise it did not yet exist.
When Johnson conceived of this crusade, he hadn’t the foggiest idea of what was involved.  And so he turned to the experts, but they did not know either.  Social scientists might talk about empowering the poor or promoting social justice, but hadn’t a clue about how to go about this.
For Johnson, the “war of poverty” was a beguiling catchphrase.  It would presumably attract voters.  The words sounded muscular and recalled the recent victory over Germany and Japan.  This seemed to be something we could do if we put our minds and dollars to it.
Nonetheless, it ignored the complications of reality.  We are a hierarchical species.  This means we compete with each other to see who will come out best.  In other words, there are winners and losers.  Moreover, the losers hate to lose.  They therefore feel poor, even if they own their own homes and automobiles.
Relative deprivation is a nasty fact.  So are inequalities in ability and motivation.  Papering them over with words does not make them disappear.  Slogans may entice people to a cause, but they don’t provide directions on how to make it come true.
Another mantra that has had currency is: if we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we do “X”.  Once upon a time, flying rockets into space seemed miraculous.  Doing so was the stuff of science fiction.  Only super-human beings could manage a feat this daunting.
But then we did it—because we figured out how.  It really was a matter of putting the resources together.  Cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are not in the same league.  Neither are poverty or social justice.  This also pertains to education.  More moneys for schools do not necessarily defeat ignorance.
Politicians have always loved slogans and metaphors.  They have always used them as rallying cries to mobilize their supporters.  They do so because these work.  Precisely because their meanings are ambiguous, they bring diverse strangers together—at least temporarily.
Donald Trump did this with, “make America great again.”  John Kennedy did it with, “get America moving again.”  For Ronald Reagan, it was, “morning in America.”  For Franklin Roosevelt, we had nothing to fear, “but fear itself.”
Our ability to use words and images is one of the greatest assets of being human.  But it is also one of our greatest liabilities.  We must consequently be on guard lest our symbolic capacities run away with us.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

In Praise of Self-Discipline


Life can be hard.  We do not always get what we want.  Virtually every day we must pull ourselves together to perform onerous chores and/or refrain from attractive vices.   Not everything we do is about having fun or satisfying our momentary whims.
I, for one, do not always enjoy getting up in the morning.  I would prefer to lounge in bed daydreaming about the glorious deeds yet to be done.  Nor do I want to jump in my car to drive down I 575 so as to teach occasionally reluctant students.
Of course, there are days when I am eager to greet the sun and look forward to a stimulating day.  It’s just that I have duties to complete however I feel.  Like it or not, I need to rev up and get on with business.
Something similar applies to expressing myself.  I do not always verbalize what I think.  Oftentimes when people behave foolishly, but do not point a finger or declare someone a fool.  Rather than start a fight, I keep my sentiments to myself.
This goes double for my relationship with my wife.  Although I love her dearly, there are moments were her habits try my patience.  Never—and I mean never—do I insult her intelligence or impugn her motives.  To the contrary, my goal is to understand her point of view so that we can reconcile our differences.
I am no saint, but like a majority of adults in our mass society I have learned the rudiments of self-discipline.  Most of the time, I honor my responsibilities and avoid unnecessary conflicts.  Civilized society would be impossible were this not the norm.
In previous columns, I have argued for principled realism.  Yet this would be unworkable were we entirely impulsive.  If we did not stop to think before we acted, we would seldom adapt our endeavors to unpleasant realities.  We would instead blunder ahead breaking the furniture.
As importantly, were we wholly spontaneous, morality would be out of the question.  We would injure each other without a second thought by violating the simplest of precepts.  In brief, we would lie, cheat, and murder as the spirit moved us.
Nonetheless, self-discipline is now in short supply.  When we look to the political scene, we see a president who sometimes cannot prevent himself from tweeting inappropriate comments.  We also see his opponents engaging in subversive conduct just so that they can injure him.
Perhaps worst of all, we see national journalists throwing tantrums.  In an effort to gain personal attention, they play nonstop gotcha games.  No longer do they check out the sources of their scurrilous stories.
In fact, narcissistic intemperance has become common.  More of us than previously believe we deserve whatever we desire.  The mere fact that we want something provides the warrant for being selfish, inconsiderate, and—yes—stupid.  Not just political figures, but ordinary folks look for the easy way out.
As a college professor, I tell my students that if they hope to be successful, they must learn to read, write, and organize their activities.  If they do not read, they will not increase their knowledge.  If they cannot write, they will be unable to communicate effectively.  And if they are disorganized, they will squander their talents.
Nonetheless, many of my students do not read.  Academic books are often too dry to be stimulating.  Nor do they practice writing.  Doing so is more tedious than computer games.  Lastly, they are unsystematic.  No matter how often I urge them to begin class papers before the end of the term, almost none do.
In fact we are cultivating generation of snowflakes.  They cannot control themselves enough to listen to contrary opinions.  Rather than reflect on distasteful ideas, they scurry off to safe places or shout down opponents.
In a world as diverse as ours, this is a recipe for disaster.  It heralds an inability to arrive at shared conclusions or to prevent internecine warfare.  Without self-discipline, we are doomed.  Chaos is inevitable when people cannot keep their yearnings in check.
Why then aren’t we promoting self-control?  Why are we encouraging our young to live for the day and indulge in unbridled egoism?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

It's the Humidity


To date, this has been a pleasant summer.  The temperatures have been average for Georgia and there has been sufficient rain to keep our lawns from becoming parched brown wastelands.  Although the sun has shined much of the time, it has not burned us to a crisp.
Nonetheless, this is Georgia and there is a normal downside to this season.  As is commonly said: It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.  The amount of moisture carried by the southern atmosphere can make human life nearly impossible.
In places like Arizona, where the temperature can soar to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, people do not go outside during midday.  They may brag about their dry heat, but they do not challenge the sun when it is at its apex.
Locally, we too seek ways to keep from becoming unduly uncomfortable.  We drink lots of iced tea, we keep our air conditioners in good repair, and we too spend less time outdoors during the most sweltering hours.
As I have written in previous columns, my wife and I are walkers.  Whenever our jobs and the weather allow, we like to get out and saunter around our neighborhood.  Usually we spend about an hour a day and go for between three and three and a half miles.
My wife insists that this is good for our health and I believe she is right.  Besides, we live in a lovely development.  The homes we pass are well maintained and the gardens carefully tended.  Whatever the season, there are so many flowers we regularly comment on their beauty.
Nonetheless, there is that humidity.  There is no escaping it.  Day after day, our cell phones and our bodies inform us that it is up near one hundred percent.  Moreover, this is not namby-pamby humidity.  It is the kind that drenches your underwear and saps your strength.
So what do we do?  We do what the other steady walkers in our neighborhood do.  We get out early.  During mid-winter, we walk in the afternoon, whereas in summer this would be fatal.  In summer, we head out the door as close to 7:30 AM as we can manage.
Even so, this is an imperfect expedient.  Many a morning the air is as saturated as physics will permit.  The windows in our house are fogged up and when we step outside it is like entering a sauna.
As for me, I walk at a modest pace.  My knees discourage anything more brisk, while my breath cries out that even this might be too much.  But it is my skin that really objects to the impact of excessive humidity.  To put the matter somewhat indelicately: I sweat.
My Yiddish grandmother would have said I schwitz.  But however you say it, beads of moisture well up on my forehead and stream down my face.  My body is also soaking wet, such that taking my wicking shirt off when we get home becomes a chore.  Indeed, everything I touch is sticky.
One of the walkers my wife and I encounter told us about a book he read in which former president Jimmy Carter wrote that he never minded the hot Georgia summers; it was the frigid winters he resented.  For transplanted northerners, such as myself, it is the other way around.
This said, I have no intention of moving back north.  Nor do I have any plans to stop walking.  The humidity and the reaction of my body are merely part of the price we pay for being human.
When I was a boy and assisted my father when he repaired the television sets of our neighbors, I marveled at how much he perspired in the midst of a challenging job.  The more trouble he encountered, the more liquid would drip off his face.
At the time, I found this disconcerting.  But it turns out I am my father’s son and my constitution is not unlike his.  I guess that means I have to accept who I am, as well as the Georgia weather.
But neither am I turning off my air conditioner!
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University