Monday, April 16, 2018

Confronting the Dominoes of Denial

For some time now, I have been struggling to understand why so many good people tolerate rank dishonesty.  Why do liberals, in particular, spout obvious mendacities?  Worse still, why do they applaud fabrications from others? Shouldn’t they reject politicians who make a habit of propagating falsehoods?
Although I am sure that liberals make the identical complaint about conservatives, for the moment let us assume that there were lies about ObamaCare, the IRS, and the Trump dossier.  Why have these not elicited the same sort of clamor, as occurred with Watergate?
When I was a clinician helping clients deal with their personal demons, a routine obstacle we faced was their denials.  Despite themselves, these troubled souls refused to see what was there to be seen.  The traumatic events they had experienced were so painful; they could not bear to relive them.
As I watch liberals refuse to acknowledge the failures of their political agenda, it is obvious that they too are in denial.  They genuinely do not see what they could if they were able to tolerate the agony of recognizing that their dreams have turned to ashes.
In fact, we are witnessing the dominoes of denial.  The repudiation of one painful truth requires the repudiation of another painful truth that were it admitted would tear away the fa├žade of the first.  And so denial begets denial, which begets denial, and so forth.  Eventually a tissue of lies produces a Potemkin village of untruths.
This habit of progressive deceit goes way back.  It has its roots centuries ago.  But let us start with Barack Obama.  (I am tempted to begin with Bill Clinton, but let this pass.) Obama was a master of misdirection. He boasted about being transparent, but was the least transparent chief executive in living memory.
Donald Trump is currently lambasted for his alleged duplicity. Nothing he does is exempt from liberal criticism.  Whether it is his tax cut, or dealings with North Korea, or immigration policy, he is depicted as a felon and a fraud.  In short, he is regarded as a monster.
Obama, in contrast, could do nothing wrong.  Did he lie about Benghazi?  Well, not really.  Did race relations go sour on his watch?  Well, that was because of white privilege.  Did ObamaCare fail to live up to its advance billing?  This was clearly the fault of the Republicans.   Did the economy stagnate?  Obviously, no one could have done better.
In other words, the amount of denial regarding Obama’s shortcomings is massive.  Because he was perceived as our first black president, liberals could not allow him to fail.  This might cast aspersions on an entire race—which was completely unacceptable.
Yet this cover-up begat additional cover-ups.  Were Trump to be appreciated as undoing much of Obama’s mischief, it would be necessary to admit that Barack was not perfect.  It might be necessary, for instance, to acknowledge that the economy could have done better with fewer regulations.
Obama is still bragging about how corruption free his administration was, whereas we are learning about how he, and is cronies, weaponized the FBI, the Justice Department, and the CIA.  In order to obscure these embarrassing facts, Trump and his allies must be depicted as more corrupt.
This practice of disguising failures by inventing rival failures does not end.  Were Russian collusion confessed to be a fabrication, Obama’s complicity in creating it might come to light.  That cannot be allowed to happen.  It might unravel decades of liberal exaggerations.
The scales will not fall from liberal eyes because they would have to accept their limitations.  They could not continue to fool themselves into believing that they are more intelligent and compassionate than their foes.  How then would they congratulate themselves for being special?
Denial is a commonplace defense mechanism.  We all use it.  It has become standard operating procedure for liberals because they have so many failings to conceal.  Not the least of these is the dishonesty that their deteriorating fairytales forced them to employ.
With my clinical clients, the objective was to help them become sturdy enough to confront excruciating realities.  What sort of therapy must we now perform with liberals?  My guess is that this will have to be strong medicine.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University

Putting Pieces of the PuzzleTogether

For years I was perplexed over how to teach social change.   My students at Kennesaw State University—like young people almost everywhere—were hopelessly idealistic.  They held simplistic ideas about what is wrong with our country and even more simplistic ideas about how to remedy it.
Then, almost by accident, I blurted out that we were dealing with complicated questions.  Ever since then, I have been using this as a mantra.  Time and again, I remind a class that things are complicated.  Societies have so many interacting parts that it is difficult to keep track of changes—never mind control them.
I encountered a similar problem when I assembling my book Forward-Looking Conservatism: A Renegade Sociologist Speaks Out.  This compilation of MDJ and Cherokee Tribune columns (which is now out on Amazon) required me to select from over five hundred columns to create a unified whole. This was not easy.
The task was like putting the pieces of an intricate puzzle together. Somehow essays that were independently composed needed to fit into a coherent picture.  They had to tell a consistent story or there was little point of combining them under a single cover.
Whether I succeeded will be up to others to judge, but my strategy was to start by documenting our current political crisis.  After this I recommended principled realism as an alternative to the mess we inherited in the wake of Liberal failures.
A Neo-Marxist perspective is, in fact, a student favorite.  Its utopian projections and Manichean interpretation of social events suits their desire for stark villains and happy endings. They want to know whom to blame so that eternal happiness will burst forth like cherry blossoms in spring.
The young do not realize that they are assaulting our social integrity. They do not understand that in bashing traditional values they are endorsing anarchy.  While progress is a good thing, today’s youth have been so mis-educated that they do not recognize our need for core principles.
This is where forward-looking conservatism comes in. It provides an alternative that builds on a foundation of time-honored standards.  These tenets must be updated to address contemporary challenges, but they provide the adhesive to keep our diverse and techno-commercial society from fragmenting.
Regular readers will know that I have been recommending honesty, personal responsibility, fairness (defined as the same rules for all), liberty and family stability.  These may be difficult to implement, but they enable us to cooperate on ventures that are widely beneficial.
This (I hope) coherent story emerged from decades of focusing on independent aspects of a kaleidoscopic social universe.  Part of what is driving contemporary Americans to distraction is our inability to clarify what feels wrong.  Folks on a left and the right are distressed by unforeseen developments; unsure of what these mean.
If I am correct, forward-looking conservatism brings intelligibility out of darkness.  While it does not eliminate the complications, it puts them into perspective. At least it enabled me to do this while I was struggling to coordinate disparate essays.
Another aspect of this project, which is less relevant to readers than me, was puzzling out how to convert a manuscript into a published book. Times have changed and is on the leading edge of a revolution in social communications.  It not only sells books, it prints them on order.
Donald Trump may have issues with this commercial giant, but I appreciate its innovations.  First these helped me buy books conveniently and now they are helping me publish them conveniently—well, perhaps not all that easily.
I am no computer maven.  Although I am habitually at my keyboard typing out books and columns, the intricacies of programming leave me cold.  This is a complication I would rather skip.
Unfortunately I could not avoid it in preparing my manuscript for publication. I am sure that if I had much hair left, I would have pulled out every strand.  Each time I turned around there seemed to be an obstacle I could not master.
In the end, enough came together so that I now have an actual paperback in my hands.  The margins are not what I wanted and my original cover had to be scrapped, but the tome is now tangible.  Next time I will do better.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Million Little Obamas

Now that he has been out of office for over a year, Barack Obama is thinking about his future.  As per usual, his ruminations are on a large scale.  This former community organizer is contemplating organizing the entire planet.  “Hope and change” is intended to go global.
As Barack explained to a television audience, his goal is to inspire young people to pick up the mantle he was forced to drop when his second term as president ended.  He wants them to help implement reforms he was unable to complete.
The way Obama put it is that he hopes to cultivate “a million little Obamas.”  He expects these young people to emulate him—to the betterment of humankind.  In fact, when he said this, he chuckled.  He knew this plan was grandiose.
Actually, it was extraordinarily vain.  As such, it revealed one of the character flaws that made him a failed president.  Barack thinks so highly of himself that he can imagine of no better future than a world populated with Obama clones.
Consider that these are to be “little” Obamas.  They are to reflect his glory, rather than obscure it.  He is to be the shining sun, whereas they are to be asteroids that revolve around his greatness.
But what has Obama done to warrant this extraordinary glory.  When in office, he supposedly obsessed on his legacy.  Still, has this bequest developed in a way that we look back hungrily to a second coming of our erstwhile savior?  Did he produce such wonders that we crave many more?
Well, actually No.  Thus, ObamaCare was a dismal failure.  Its death spiral has finally arrived.  The costs were always going to be exorbitant, while the benefits were slim.  As a result, his government takeover of the health industry could barely survive the passing of its sponsor.
The Iran policy was also a failure.  If this gambit was intended to curb the ambitions of the mullahs, it has already demonstrated its futility.  The Shia hegemony is on the march.  It has reached the Mediterranean and penetrated deep into Yemen.  Can atomic weapons be far behind?
Nor did the rest of Obama’s foreign policy fare well.  Strategic patience established its ineffectiveness on the Korean peninsula.  Kim Jung Un did not decide to forego the bomb because the Americans looked the other way.  To the contrary, he interpreted this neglect as an all-clear sign.
Neither did the Russian Bear go into hibernation.  When Barack sent Putin the message that he would have more flexibility after he was re-elected, this was a signal that nothing would be done to stop Russia’s advance into the Ukraine or the Middle East.  There might be a few harsh words, but no action.
The same applied to ISIS.  In this case, some bombs were dropped, but a fear of injuring civilians meant these had limited effect.  What could have been done to stop the Islamists—but wasn’t—was laid bare by how easily Trump was able to dismember the Caliphate.
Nor was Obama’s legacy more glowing on the home front.  The economy stagnated for eight years.  Only a dose of deregulation and tax reform got it going again.  Race relations also soured, with Black Lives Matter casting aspersions on whites and inner city mobs running riot.
Then there was the rise in the crime rate, the continued decline in educational achievement, the fragmentation of the American family, and the opioid epidemic.  There are even intimations of corruption in the FBI, the IRS, and the White House.  Where, in this litany, was there something of which to be proud?
And yet the media continue to lionize Obama.  He is the standard of dignity with which Trump’s vulgarity is contrasted.  Oh, for the days when we heard literate speeches from our chief executive.  Spare us today’s egotism so that we can again bask in the polished egotism of yore.
Isn’t this, however, just another form of vanity?  The mainstream media seldom criticized Obama.  As our nation’s first black president, they were determined that he not fail.  They would protect him from himself for the good of the nation and humanity.
But isn’t this hubris?  Don’t those who practice it consider it proof of their moral superiority?  Haven’t they converted white guilt into a blindfold that enables them to pretend narcissism is a virtue?
Melvyn L. Fin, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University

The Hazards of Too Much Wealth

I guess it was about half a year ago that I saw a television program on the Victorian era.  It concentrated on the lifestyles of the newly rich.  They were portrayed as parvenus who did not know how to handle such good fortune.  Their big hats and even bigger egos were anything but attractive.
Let me explain.  Mark Twain called the end of the nineteenth century the Gilded Age.  It was a period of unprecedented wealth.  Industrialization made the United States extremely affluent.  Indeed, it had become the richest nation in all of history.
As a corollary, the titans of industry became richer than any previous cohort.  Moreover, many of them came from humble roots and so did not know what to do with their bounty.  They therefore looked to the British aristocracy for role models.
American millionaires thus built palaces in which to reside.  They too threw lavish balls for which they could dress to the nines.  They likewise turned dinner into a stage setting choreographed in every detail.  Nothing was to be out of place.  No extravagance was too extreme.
And yet, these encumbrances were uncomfortable.  Wearing white tie finery to dinner required hours of preparation and resulted in stilted personal interactions.  People were so busy brandishing the symbols of success that they had little time to enjoy them.
Are our current middle classes—and to some extent our lower classes—experiencing a similar affluence shock?  Have we too become so wealthy that we do not know how to employ our assets?  Are we too wasting these advantages on frills that do not convert into personal happiness?
To me, the computer and its various accouterments are exhibit number one.  Many of us are so eager to possess the latest technological wizardry that we do not ask how it will improve our lives.  What, for instance, is the point of having an electronic servant order theater tickets for us?
And what is this business about social media.  If we spend so many hours on Facebook that we accumulate thousands of “friends,” do we have any real friends?  Can an electronic “like” replace the warm smile of a flesh and blood companion?
So badly have our social skills atrophied that people have a harder time establishing love relationships.  The upshot is that family stability is in jeopardy.  Marriages do not last, while children are at the mercy of parents who are more concerned with their own happiness.
As for our automobiles and houses, the larger and more luxurious they are evidently the better.  This cultural gigantism might not translate into additional comfort, but if my toy is bigger and fancier than your toy, I have won the competition to be best.
Next, come our outrageous fashions.  Somehow green hair is supposed to be attractive.  Well, maybe not attractive.  The objective is apparently to be noticed, not admired.  People want to stand out as opposed to achieving anything worthwhile.
Contemporary musical tastes, however, are probably the most revealing.  Sentimental melodies and insightful lyrics have been replaced by raucous rhythms and mean-spirited screams.  Not talent, but attention getting audacity is the goal of many performers.
What is the point of all this?  Is it to distract us from the fact that we have more opportunities than previous generations, but less of an idea what to do with them?  It is as if we had a banquet laid out before us, but got into a food fight because we did not know what to eat first.
So let me make a few suggestions.  Relationships matter.  Loving and being loved never go out of fashion.  Nonetheless, good relations begin with understanding ourselves.  We cannot make solid commitments to others if we are ignorant of who we are and what we want.  This, however, takes courage.
Achievements also matter.  Doing things that are worth doing provides self-respect and social dignity.  Making the world a better place deserves recognition and frequently commands it.  Yet here too courage is of inestimable value.  We could, after all, fail.
My last word.  Wealth is a tool—not an end in itself.  If we do not use it wisely, it can backfire.  Furthermore, this is a skill we are able to acquire, but only if we recognize its worth.
Melvyn L. Fin, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Monday, April 2, 2018

Figuring Out the Modern World

For the most part, we do not recognize what is happening around us until it is over.  When we are in the midst of changes, we are so confused by the unexpected that we cannot make out novel patterns.  It is only after the dust settles that we realize how the pieces fit together.
That, however, doesn’t keep us from tying to figure things out.  We do so because the more accurate our comprehension, the better choices we make.  Once we recognize the obstacles we face, we can improve our chances of circumventing them.
To this end, a recent book has helped put our current situation in better perspective.  Niall Ferguson’s “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to FaceBook” offers a historian’s eye view.  He draws the parallels between what happened in the wake of the printing press with the current computer revolution.
According to Ferguson, relatively cheap books were extremely disruptive.  They brought about scientific, political, and religious upheavals.  Once ordinary people could communicate without the intervention of the authorities, new ways of thinking proliferated.
With inexpensive tracts available, scientists could cross-pollinate and spread innovative ideas.  With low-priced pamphlets at his disposal, Martin Luther could broadcast his challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, which, in turn, disrupted the political order.  The outcome was to midwife modern society.
Today, says Ferguson, we are experiencing similar turmoil.  The Internet and social media have scrambled the ways people communicate.  The news, for instance, is no longer always filtered through media authorities.  People can express their opinions to each other directly without worrying about official censorship.
The question is: Where will this end?  Will there be greater democratization or an administrative counter-attack.  Four hundred years ago, a counter-reformation reasserted the power of Rome.  At about the same time, Louis XIV of France was able to consolidate his more centralized government.  Will we suffer a comparable fate?
Ferguson is primarily interested in the effects of changing patterns of communication.  He contrasts hierarchies, where those at the top dominate information flows, with networks, where data flows laterally.  This, nonetheless, is a partial analysis.
What Ferguson leaves out are factors such as power and social roles.  Power is not just a matter of communication, but of coercion.  Bosses don’t control others solely by monopolizing information.  They also intimidate them into submission.
Likewise, lower level folks don’t only assert their desires by communicating with their peers.  They also do so through a division of labor.  If they are able to coordinate complicated specialties, they can make others dependent upon them.
Even so, Ferguson rightly talks about the emergence of the “administrative” state.  Another way to describe this is “bureaucratic” government.  It is hierarchical, and non-democratic, in the sense that those at the top can effectively control those at the bottom.
Meanwhile, the connections of those at the bottom can be mapped in terms of network connections.  Who communicates with whom frequently determines who is most influential.  Yet people also interact in terms of their roles.  Their various activities intersect so that they achieve more together than separately.  In this case, “professionalism” is correlated with power.
I would, therefore, describe the big fight today as between the bureaucrats and professionals.  Hence, we have the bureaucratic party, namely the Democrats, squared off against the decentralizing party, that is, the Republicans.  The former, in the name of protecting the people, are hierarchically oriented, whereas the latter, in the name of greater freedom, foster voluntary networks.
Ferguson is smart enough to know that the complete victory of one or the other of these parties might be disastrous.  If the centralizers won, we would probably be saddled with tyranny.  They would be inclined to stamp out originality so as to impose their version of social order.
On the other hand, if the decentralizers were completely victorious, chaos would likely ensue.  Not liberty, but license could prevail.  We are consequently on the horns of a dilemma.  With neither side monopolizing the truth, the best way to proceed is via a balance of power.
The trouble is that this is usually achieved by way of endless conflict.  Because no one can know the fluctuating sweet spot, we are doomed to eternal strife.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw, State University

In Search of the Truth

Our contemporary lack of honesty has become a personal obsession.  Everywhere I turn, I see some people lying, while others are totally indifferent to this lack of candor.  Interpersonal trust has eroded because it is more difficult than previously to determine who is telling the truth.  This scares me.
Concurrent with this development is an indifference even to discovering the truth.  One might suppose that if we cannot have confidence in what others say, we would redouble our efforts to uncover the facts.  But this has not happened.
When I teach my students at Kennesaw State University, I am routinely amazed by what they do not know.  Equally amazing is that many don’t seem to care.  They accept the most outlandish deceits as factual because they never drill down to verify them.
Take the proposition that women earn seventy-nine cents on the dollar as compared with men.  This, although it is fundamentally untrue, gets endlessly repeated as if we were in an echo chamber.  In reality, nowadays men and women get paid almost the same—if they do the same jobs.  The differences—and there are some—arise because they often perform dissimilar duties.
The same disjunction between reality and what political partisans say is present in the global warming controversy.  Propaganda machines, such as the United Nations, cherry pick data.  They tell us, for instance, that the Arctic ice pack is decreasing, but leave out the part about how the Antarctic ice is increasing.
We live in a world of sound bites and computer memes.  Little bits of pseudo knowledge circulate with few restrictions.  These are essentially forms of entertainment, rather than serious efforts to determine what is real.  If something sounds as if it might be true—and is consistent with our convictions—we regard it as factual.
Residing, as many of us do, in hermetically sealed political compartments, we do not want our tranquility to be disturbed.  Not only do we not listen to those with whom we disagree, we do not venture forth to sample what might be disquieting.  Heaven forbid we were wrong.  We might have to change our minds.
Of course, we are all confident that we are right.   It is those other guys, the ones who oppose us, who are wrong.  They must be defeated so that our views have an unimpeded road to travel.
Reality, however, is complicated.  It was not constructed with an eye to guaranteeing our serenity.  The more we learn, the more we discover what we do not know.  This is why it is so disturbing that many Americans are not on a quest to increase their knowledge.
They don’t read.  At least, they don’t read anything that is difficult to assimilate.  By the same token, they don’t have civil discussions with those who have differing viewpoints.  Instead they hurl invectives.
As a consequence, we live in a world replete with political turmoil.  Does gun ownership promote school massacres?  Are illegal immigrants more likely to commit crimes?  Will raising the minimum wage improve the living conditions of the poor?  Is global warming a function of atmospheric carbon dioxide or fluctuations in solar output?
If we do not want to know the answers, we will not know.  If we are unprepared to deal with real world complications, we must perforce reside in a fantasy world.  Likewise, if we ignore evidence that demonstrates we sometimes injure others, we will injure others.
My guess is that some readers are saying to themselves that Fein should look in the mirror.  What makes him think he has a better grasp of the truth than me?  It is he who is living in a dream world.
These are reasonable observations.  I too am human and therefore make mistakes.  If I am recommending that we investigate the truth for ourselves, shouldn’t this apply to me?  The answer is obvious.  Of course, it should.
This, unfortunately, is easier said than done.  Mistakes are inevitable, whereas none of us wants to make them.  Because an honest search for the truth might disconfirm our cherished beliefs, we hold back.  As for me, I am aware of this pitfall and try to be alert to my blind spots.
How about you?  Can we agree that we all have limitations—but that the truth matters?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw, State University