Monday, March 19, 2018

Speaking Truth to Power

Last year, when I attended a sociological conference, I was part of a panel discussing how to get a book published.  At the time, I had written sixteen books and hence had a fair understanding of how this happened.
One of my co-panelists, who had written fewer works, insisted that conservatives dominated the publishing industry.  They supposedly owned the businesses and discriminated against liberals.  He, therefore, bragged that, in getting his books into print, he had spoken truth to power—and gotten away with it.
In fact, liberals have long since ceased speaking truth to power.  Nowadays, they scarcely speak it to anyone, including themselves.  They have become such rigid ideologues that they cannot tell the difference between phony talking points and reality.
If the truth be known, liberals are often the ones in power.  For nearly a century, it has been that way.  This is certainly true in publishing.  Most of the biggest houses are owned and run by liberals who are reluctant to publish views that run counter to their own.
Plainly, liberals own the New York Times and the Washington Post.  As a consequence, their editorial policies do not run counter to those who pay the bills.  Nor do the opinions expressed in the mainstream media.  Here too those in charge of what makes it onto the airwaves are part of a liberal establishment.
The same is patently the case when we examine who runs the federal bureaucracy.  Progressives are entrenched in the deep state.  Lois Lerner was able to get away with discriminating against conservatives when at the IRS because most of the agency’s managers were liberal.  As such, her tactics did not offend them.
Nowadays, I work at a university.  As bastions of higher education go, KSU is more tolerant than most.  Nonetheless, conservatives have learned to be careful about what they say.  We recently had a conservative speaker (Katie Pavlich) whose sponsors were obliged to pay for extra security, precisely because liberals frequently seek to shut down voices they find controversial.
Even when I write columns about the vices of neo-Marxists, I can expect liberal pushback.  Many more than once, progressive readers have demanded that I no longer be allowed to write for the MDJ or Cherokee Tribune.  These folks assume that they have a right to dictate editorial policy.
This liberal sense of entitlement has become pervasive precisely because leftists so often control contemporary seats of power.  Although they pretend to be weak outsiders, who are mercilessly suppressed by conservative tyrants, the opposite is more nearly true.
Many times, readers commend me for the courage to say out loud what they privately think.  By the same token, I am frequently asked how I have managed to survive for so long on a college campus.  These folks react this way because they are aware of how autocratic liberals can be.
Speaking truth to power is a good thing.  It is one of the virtues that make democracy possible.  But nowadays, it is conservatives who must exhibit the audacity to speak up.  It is they who are more likely to be punished by the powers that be.
Once upon a time, liberals believed in tolerance.  They insisted on the value of an open marketplace of ideas.  Those days are gone.  Today’s liberals assume that if you disagree with them, you are a moral monster who must be stopped.  They refuse even to listen to views that contradict their own.
But how are we to decide what is right in such an environment?  If free speech includes only liberal speech, we are doomed.  If the first response of liberals is to gag those who challenge them and their second is to ruin the careers of those they find offensive, can a gulag be far behind?
Conservatives believe in liberty, which should include the ability to speak truth to power.  Liberals must understand that they too ought to honor the rules for which they once so valiantly fought.  Instead of reflexively muzzling their opponents, they might want to listen to them.
Power, as Lord Acton warned, corrupts.  Guess what, it corrupts liberals too.  If they do not realize that they are abusing their power, they are more likely to do so!
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Why I Like Contemporary Christians

My paternal grandparents came to the United States in 1898.  They were fleeing from their home, which was then in Russia.  The town where they lived—today’s Bialystok, Poland—had just experienced a terrible pogrom.  Their Christian neighbors had rampaged through the streets beating and killing Jews.
The only way my grandparents survived was by barricading the door to their apartment.  It is easy to understand why they sought refuge in the United States.  They did not want to perish.  Nor did they want their two young daughters to suffer this fate.
European Jews had endured centuries of oppression.  They were forced to live in ghettoes.  Many occupations were closed to them.  And when things went wrong, they were accused of fomenting trouble.  Hitler was not their first tormentor.  During the Middle Ages, thousands were tortured and killed for ostensibly causing the plague.
No wonder I was raised to be wary of Christians.  No wonder a Jewish high school teacher felt justified in warning that it was a bad idea for Jews to marry Christians.  Those who surrounded me were aware of the legacy of oppression that haunted their co-religionists and were not about to take chances.
But the United States is not Europe.  Anti-Semitism exists on these shores, but is less virulent.  When growing up, half of my friends were Italian Catholics.  Not once did I fear that they would attack me for my faith.  Today, I am married to a woman who was raised an evangelical.  Not once have we fought about religious differences.
The Spanish Inquisition has been discontinued.  Jews may not be welcome in every country club, but few neighborhoods are completely closed to them.  Meanwhile, the Muslim Louis Farrakhan spews vile nonsense to receptive congregations; whereas most American Christians reject his racist drivel out of hand.
The fact is that I like most contemporary American Christians.  What is more, I admire many.  Recently my wife and I went to a Lenten fish fry at a local church.  These were nice people.  They were warm and welcoming.  Why would I fear them?
In fact, observant Christians and I share many values.  We all believe in honesty, fairness, and personal responsibility.  We all stress the importance of family values.  When it comes to these crucial principles, we are allies—not adversaries.
What is more, Christians who practice their faith are often good people.  A dedication to their faith is part of the reason that they treat others decently.  Why would I be against that?
Not long ago, I attended a debate about whether the gospels were historically reliable.  Both protagonists were college professors.   Both had been raised Christian, but one had become an agnostic.  Theirs was an open and honest discussion.  It was a demonstration that modern Christianity is vibrant and tolerant.
This broadmindedness was evident not only on the stage, but in the audience.  When it came time for the listeners to ask questions, they did so thoughtfully and respectfully.  They were sincerely grappling with how to interpret their faith.
I appreciate this attitude.  It is a far cry from what I once believed of Christian fundamentalists.  When I moved to Georgia, I feared that I was entering the Bible Belt.  I worried that I might be trapped in an updated version of Inherit the Wind.
This turned out to be an absurd caricature.  So far were my neighbors from being rigid ideologues that many of my KSU students did not realize they were Protestants.  They knew they were Baptists, but were so devoid of denominational awareness that they knew nothing of their church’s historical legacy.
When Thomas Jefferson was fighting for religious liberty in colonial Virginia, the Anglican Church was the established church.  Even non-believers had to pay taxes to support it.  When Cotton Mather was preaching from his New England pulpit, dissenters were forcibly ejected from Massachusetts.  In some cases, they were executed.
That was then.  This is now.  Why would I want to live in the past because of injustices done to my forebears?  Why would I refuse to embrace good people merely because they believe a religion that has a checkered history?  I may not be a Christian, but I happily defend today’s Christianity.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University

Monday, March 12, 2018

Insights from Henry Kissinger

There was a time when Henry Kissinger dominated the news.  As Richard Nixon’s national security advisor and then as Secretary of State under Nixon and Gerald Ford, he was central to formulating and executing our foreign policy.  What is more, he had a well-earned reputation for expertise.
Kissinger was smart, and knowledgeable, and had a way of communicating with the media, that contributed to his personal power.  As an ardent student of history, he appreciated the need for an international balance of power and did his best to establish one.
Nonetheless, the historian Niall Ferguson has identified a conundrum at the heart of Kissinger’s political career.  How was a man, who started out as a scholar, able to rise to the summit of diplomatic power?  How did he manage to exercise as much executive influence as he did?
Ferguson points out that academics almost never hold high level government offices.   They are generally behind the scene advisors because they are usually terrible decision makers.  More often interested in getting every detail right, they dither when it comes time to choose.
Kissinger was an exception.  He loved to turn ideas into concrete policies.  He enjoyed wading in and getting his hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of political maneuvering.  One of the reasons was that he had no confidence in bureaucratic acumen.  As such, he did not trust careerists in the State Department.
According to Kissinger, bureaucrats fall in love with rules.  They value predictability so highly that they spin webs of regulations, which then tie everyone down.  Decisions do not get made because no one wants to challenge the status quo.  No one wants to lose his or her job by being too independent.
Paradoxically, this attitude has the opposite effect during negotiations.  Because bureaucrats seldom have principles, they take their cues about deal making from their opponents.  Rather than going into sessions knowing what they want, they attempt to discover what the other side is willing to give.
Kissinger possessed a more stable personal compass.  As a result, he was able to make choices on the spot.  He could size up events, zero in on potential opportunities, and make adjustments on the fly.  This enabled him to formulate significant changes, as they were required.
The upshot was that Kissinger relied more on networking than on hierarchical institutions.  He developed relationships in government and with foreign leaders that facilitated flexibility.  Because he knew those with whom he was dealing, he could achieve agreements based on trust.
Bureaucrats are typically less supple.  They may be good at political infighting, but are customarily more concerned with staying out of trouble than pioneering new ventures.  Their eye is on the next promotion, not necessarily the best interests of the organization.
We see this in most federal agencies, in huge corporations, and even on college campuses.  Bureaucrats are empire builders.  Their goal is apt to be increasing the number of their subordinates, rather than achieving the company's mission.
Cyril Parkinson told us that work expands to fill the time allotted to it.  He was thinking of government bureaucracies, where additional people doing less is regarded as a sign of success.  Obviously, the more underlings an administrator manages the more prestigious he must be.
When Donald Trump talks about draining the swamp, it is this morass of inefficiency he has in mind.  When he tells us that the State Department can make do with fewer employees, he is not trying to hobble the agency, but to improve its ability to function.
Bureaucrats always tell us that they need more help.  They always insist that they are understaffed and that making cuts will destroy morale and prevent crucial work from being completed.  These, however, are rationalizations.  They are not based upon facts, but careerist ambitions.
In the old Soviet Union, the Moscow based bureaucrats, who controlled the economy, believed they were smarter and more efficient than those whose tasks they planned.  In fact, they nearly brought the nation to a standstill.  The same could happen in the United States.
We therefore need less bureaucracy and more decentralization; fewer high priced bosses and more professionalized experts.  Kissinger was right—and so is Trump.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Complications with Long-Distance Families

When I was a child, many of my relatives lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood.  We could walk to each other’s homes.  But even as I entered my teen years, some were moving to the suburbs.  Prosperity enabled them to lift their horizons.
This trend has continued.  Now my extended family is more far-flung than ever.  On my father’s side, we have lost touch.  On my mother’s, we maintain contact—but intermittently.  Because some live in New Jersey, some in New York, and others in Florida, the telephone is our primary means of communication.
So it was with great pleasure that my wife and I greeted a proposal that we get together for a reunion in Florida.  A cousin—indeed my youngest cousin—had just purchased a home there, which provided a convenient excuse for reconstituting the clan.
 As it happens, this youngest of my cousins has been more successful than I imagined.  Because we hadn’t had a face-to-face talk for as long as I can remember, I didn’t realize that he had become the CEO of a billion dollar corporation.  Although I knew he was running a company, it never occurred to me it was that big.
Driving up to his palatial home on the beach quickly brought me up to speed.  This was a far cry from the mean streets of Brooklyn.  Heck, it was a far cry from the comfortable suburbs of Atlanta.
Nonetheless, my cousin was still my cousin.  He and his wife were not distant objects of veneration.  They, and his mother, who also came, were folks with whom we could let down our hair and be our selves.  The major difference was that because we were older, we could be more candid.
Yet the greatest irony of our get-together was that the cousins who initiated it were not there.  They were stuck in New Jersey.  First foul weather socked in their plane and then a malfunction canceled the flight entirely.  Because there was no easy way to reschedule, they were forced to drive home.
Although we in Florida got a blow-by-blow account of their tribulations as they were occurring, we were powerless to do anything.  This then was another complication of living so far apart.  We were all at the mercy of forms of transportation we could not control.
While I have no doubt that we will laugh about this muddle over the telephone, it has indefinitely postponed our ability to see each other.  Because we have tight schedules and finite budgets, finding another opportunity to reassemble will be difficult.
I am writing about this for a larger audience because such trials have become a common feature of the modern world.  Here is Cherokee county I am surrounded by expatriates from around the nation.  While some have nearby relatives, many do not.  They too must maintain their relationships catch-as-catch-can.
Social scientists tell us that close bonds with other humans are good for our health.  The trouble is that because we move around so much it is difficult to keep these from rupturing.  This is why we frequently depend more on proximate friends than remote relatives.
Even so, our relatives continue to matter.  When I was growing up, we used to say that blood is thicker than water.  Well, the blood seems to have thinned out a bit, but it has not evaporated.
This is why my wife and I visit her parents in Ohio every summer.  It is why we frequently make trips to Oklahoma to see her sister.  It is also why my wife makes weekly phone calls to her family.
Me, I must admit that I am more lax.  I moved away from my family, in part, so that I could establish an independent identity.  But I love my siblings and value them more with each passing year.  I am also proud of my nieces and wish them the best.
So here is the irony; although prosperity has increased our options in some dimensions, it has limited them in others.  Most of us have more choices than our ancestors, but larger numbers are also more isolated.
Freedom is a two-edged sword.  We could not have fulfilled many of our dreams without it, and yet we have done so at the expense of neglecting other needs.  Life is replete with insoluble dilemmas.  Still and all, we must find the best balance we can.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University