Rediscovering the good

Sam Smith –  I’ve been watching The Godfather movie series, the first of which came out in 1972, the same year in which a bunch of men broke into the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington on behalf of Richard Nixon who was reelected later that year.

Nixon was our first modern presidential thug, followed by corporate mob pawn Ronald Reagan, a corrupt Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump.

While the sins of our recent presidents have been duly noted, what doesn’t get much notice is the fact that we, the citizens of America, elected them.

Somehow, for a half century,  large collections of us have become dutiful followers of one misdoer  or another. Like residents of Michael Corleone’s neighborhood we have learned to treat evil like the weather, something to complain about, prepare for, but not prevent. As I noted over a decade ago, “we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.” Or as one of the characters in The Godfather put it, “Politics and crime: they’re the same.”

This is not just a political problem; it is a cultural one. There has been a fading of moral voices in our society as we become more accustomed to a few deciding what happens. I am enough of an optimist to believe there are still things we can do to combat this culture but we need to recognize it and start talking and doing things about it. Here are a few suggestions:

The media: Large media are owned by far fewer companies and local print media are disappearing. Meanwhile the most watched TV channels typically define national news by what is happening in Washington, what the powerful in the capital are saying about it, and how the DC press corps analyzes it. This creates a huge bias towards the capital’s elite while fifty states and thousands of towns and cities – the places where real change usually starts – are ignored. 

Television has also had an enormous effect on political ethics. Before television, corruption was largely a feudal system in which power was traded for known services given. Now purchasable TV image has replaced real rendered service and we have lost both our relationship with, and understanding of, politicians. We even elected a president we largely knew because of a TV show.

This is damn hard to combat, but the local could be brought more alive through the sort of alternative media that spread in the 1960s (although now better on line than in print) and not just at the city or state level. We need more neighborhood online information and discussion and more non-national good voices in our lives. 

At present, moral views are not considered newsworthy. There has been a decline of  good people considered worth covering. Religious, intellectual, state and local figures are ignored unless they do something controversial.  For example, is Alan Derschowitz really the only Harvard guy worth quoting?

And it’s not just news. When I was kid, reading comic and real books or going to the movies, I searched for role models and ways to do things right. And the mass media was happy to help me. Now, as I look for movies to see or TV shows to watch, I’m stunned by how few of the choices aren’t violent, dismal, or full of psychological conflict. In fact, I’ve been wondering lately whether Jusse Smollett wasn’t inspired to do what he did by the very TV series in which he played a role, a series that features people making a lot of bad choices.

The problem even exists in popular music, witness this from Pacific Standard:

“Lyrics obtained from a random sample of pop music from the top charts revealed that this genre utilizes violence in lyrics at a level similar to hip-hop/rap, and more so than any other music format,” write University of Missouri researchers Cynthia Frisby and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz.

The researchers analyzed the lyrics of 409 top-selling songs released between 2006 and 2016. The songs, by artists including Jay-Z, John Legend, and Justin Bieber represented a variety of genres; all had sold at least one million copies.

The team noted which songs contained profanity, references to violence, and misogyny, which the researchers defined as lyrics that depicted women as “beneath men” or referred to women as “usable and expendable.”

Their most striking finding: The best-selling pop songs almost uniformly contain violent imagery. Amazingly, 99.5 percent of the pop hits they analyzed (198 in total) referred to violent acts. That’s slightly higher than the 94.7 percent of hip-hop numbers to feature such language, and far greater than the percentage of any other genre.

What’s clear is the music most popular with today’s adolescents frequently “communicates violence, demeans and objectifies women, and perpetuates gender stereotypes,” the researchers conclude.

Reading this made me look at my list of over 80 traditional jazz and pop songs I regularly play and could only find a handful that even mentioned and none that emphasized violence.

We underrate the importance of pop culture to how we think and act but I learned not to trust people like Donald Trump not by going to college but by reading comic books when I was young. And if you count the number of role models you see now in the movies, on television shows or on the evening news, you’ll get a sense of the problem.

The devaluation of history and civics in schools – How do you teach the young the principles of democracy or the history of ignoring them? The prime answer is easy, but, as these two clips indicate, far from what is going on now:

Washington Diplomat:  When pop star Taylor Swift posted on Instagram last month her support for two Tennessee Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, the number of voter registrations on skyrocketed, outpacing in just 24 hours the total number for all of August.

… Defined as the study of citizens’ rights and duties and government workings, civics education has been languishing for years. Studies show that civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low.

… Apathy, meanwhile, is widespread. The U.S. has among the lowest voter turnouts among developed nations. Despite some fluctuations, only about half of the country’s voting age population tends to cast a ballot in a presidential race.

The lack of knowledge about how our system of government works starts young. More than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked schools would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge, according to a 2015 study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni members.

We’re really fortunate to teach social studies and do civic education in Washington, D.C., because there’s such a wealth of resources all around that the city can become the classroom,” said Scott Abbott, director of social studies for DC Public Schools.

Sometimes that’s a field trip to a Smithsonian Institution museum. … Some students at Dunbar High School chose gun control, and before the March For Our Lives gun control demonstration earlier this year, they met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to discuss their bill.

Two years ago, DCPS partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on visits for 10th-graders studying World War II. About 1,500 students have participated each year.

Chronicle of Higher Education: Since the Great Recession of 2008, writes Benjamin M. Schmidt in Perspectives on History, undergraduate majors have been shifting away from the humanities. And of all the disciplines, history has fared the worst, even as college and university enrollments have grown.

Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, looked at the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008 there were 34,642 degrees awarded to history majors. In 2017 that number was 24,255, a 30-percent drop. And there’s been about a 33-percent decline in history majors since 2011, the first year in which students who watched the financial crisis unfold could easily change their majors, Schmidt found.

Urbanization – The loneliness that comes with urbanization is not just a personal problem; it is a social one. If you have an increasing number of people who don’t regularly relate with others, this not only affects psychology, it affects politics. Having had a father who worked in the New Deal for almost its entire length, I am struck by how little concern today’s urban liberals express for those who aren’t like themselves. A striking example is the stunning decline in liberal enthusiasm for labor unions. As Tony Matthews wrote in The Conversation: Loneliness is a hidden but serious problem in cities worldwide. Urban loneliness is connected to population mobility, declining community participation and a growth in single-occupant households. This threatens the viability of our cities because it damages the social networks they rely on.”

Atomization of subcultures – Another noticeable change has been an atomization of subcultures. Some of this may be due to the Internet, which encourages people to concentrate on groups and things they identify with, but is also due in part to identity politics which, ranging from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, encourages relations culturally similar to one’s own with little discussion or approaches to relate to others. There are striking exceptions, such as the Poor People’s Campaign, but for the most part identity is regarded as more important than effective coalitions. There is no doubt, for example, that a coalition of blacks, latinos, and labor could have a political effect unlike anything today, but such concepts are hardly discussed.

As I put it a couple of years ago”

The origins of this trend may have some of its roots in what I have come to think of as “niche activism,” which is to say activism based on the presumed perfection of one’s cause combined with a lower impression of those not part of it. At its worst the others are condemned, which is considered an effective activist technique even if adds not one person to the cause and may further alienate many. The Internet, with its tendency to attract people to their own political and cultural coves, plays a role in this.

Another factor has been the increased role of academia in shaping people’s views of current issues. While in the 1960s there were plenty of college students involved in protests, their professors largely ignored the underlying issues and there certainly wasn’t a widely accepted academic analysis of the various causes of resistance.

Now there Is so much academic cultural analysis out on the streets that it is often mistakenly seen as an effective response to real life situations, say like the St Louis police department.  

As the son of someone who worked in the New Deal and having covered and been active in the 1960s and the Great Society’s reaction to it, I am sometimes stunned not only be how passive liberalism has become but how little attention is paid to dealing with actual issues and building cross cultural alliances to deal with them.

Key to this in the past has been the blending of social and economic matters. I tell people that we have always had evangelical working class white guys; we just used to call them New Deal Democrats.  And that Roosevelt got more economic bills through in his first 100 days than liberals have done in the past 30 years.

Key to changing this is to cut back on analysis and organize around issues. Nothing changes people’s assumptions about others more strongly than to discover that they heartily agree on something.

Condemning the weak instead of converting them – Having been trained in the 1960s civil rights movement and the organizing philosophy of Saul Alinsky, I tend to look at those with whom I disagree and wonder, how can I change them? Basic to this approach is not to condemn. For example, talking about “white privilege” to those in a world whose ethnicity has twice as many in poverty as do blacks is not particularly effective.  Telling people that I was part of a white minority in Washington DC for some fifty years and greatly enjoyed that city is a more effective way to start the discussion. 

Recognizing the other guy’s problems is another good start. Timothy Carney in Alienated America  gives some hints:

There’s Hillary Clinton’s brag … that she won the counties with the most economic productivity and lost the counties producing the least. Nate Silver’s colleague Ben Casselman, a statistician, found that “the evidence suggests that anxiety did play a key role in Trump’s victory.” In places where jobs were more vulnerable to outsourcing or foreign competition, Casselman found, Trump did better than Romney had. Where fewer men had college degrees, Trump did better than Romney had. “Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores”. . .

More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support

And he quotes Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo who looked at the numbers in nine states with county level data: :  “’In every state except Massachusetts, the counties with high rates of white mortality were the same counties that turned out to vote for Trump.’ … Trump outperformed Mitt Romney the most in the counties with the most suicides, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. This was especially true in the industrial Midwest: Trump outperformed Romney by 8 points in the counties with the lowest rate of these deaths but outperformed him by a full 16 points in the counties with the highest rate of suicides, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. “

Now, you can call these folks racist or examples of “white privilege” but if you want to change this country so it doesn’t keep electing Trumps, you face the job of a teacher, not a scold. As the New Deal Democrats and Lyndon Johnson did, you have to give them something better to think about.

Religious and secular matters –  The decline of church attendance is clearly not working in favor of a more decent society. But even a Seventh Day Agnostic like myself found comfort in church basements in the 1960s as we organized against freeways, for civil rights and even launched the DC Statehood Party. The spirit and action of many city churches in those days was not just built on faith, but upon acting on one’s faith. This brought Christians, Jews and atheists together and I can’t remember a single time – despite a half dozen ministerial pals – that anyone questioned my  faith or lack thereof. And I dug them because they were doing good stuff.

This would be a good spirit to revive, both to make churches more relevant and help them grow again. And you don’t even have to believe in God. The Religion News Service reported recently:

In early March, more than 30 atheist, humanist and secular leaders gathered at a residence overlooking Southern Californian vineyards to discuss politics, social issues and how to draw in more people at a first-ever SoCal Secular Leadership Summit.

Sarah Levin, director of grass roots and community programs at Secular Coalition for America, said that her organization recently found that nonbelievers felt well-connected to national secular organizations but disconnected from others like them locally.

“We realized we need to help strengthen these networks of local groups so that they can be mobilized for political advocacy,” Levin said.

To that end, last weekend’s summiteers broke the day up into frequent intensive discussions about common interests, rather than asking them to sit through lectures. The Angelenos talked a lot about homelessness and climate change, while San Diegans picked up on local buzz about offering their fellow residents a public-sector alternative to the corporate monopoly that provides energy.

Rebecca Kitchings of the Inland Empire Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists group said they have the largest membership in Southern California with more than 2,500 people on their Meetup, a site and app used to organize online groups that host in-person events or meetings. But not all are active, paying members, something she hopes to increase.

Building a counterculture – We need to stop thinking of our problems as just political or economic. They are also deeply cultural. For example, if we have a new Martin Luther King Jr the media is not covering him. Our popular musicians and movie stars stay away from politics. And the young are only beginning to discover their power, as after the Parkland shootings. It can all happen quite fast. When I was in mj twenties, I started one of the few alternative papers in the country. Within a few years there were 400. It can happen fast if those with cultural power – ranging from famous stars to the unknown young – start to challenge and redefine that culture.

In short, if we do not want Donald Trump to represent us, we have to represent ourselves – loudly and clearly.

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