Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's the Matter With Berkeley?

OK, enough of all this spiritual crap. Time to talk politics. It’s not that different after all. In politics, as well as religion, there are those who cultishly cling to dogma. We want to believe whatever political views make us feel good, and then use reason only to justify what we want to believe. So it's fruitful to question deeply whatever we think we know.

The endless presidential campaign cycle has begun. In my hometown of Berkeley, CA, living rooms and coffee shops are filled with left-leaning political discussion. There’s one topic that comes up with surprising regularity: Democrats champion government programs that benefit working-class people, so why do working-class people in the American heartland favor Republicans? It’s phrased something like this, “I can understand why rich people would vote Republican, but it’s so baffling and disturbing that non-rich people do so, when it’s so obviously not in their own interest.”

These conversations usually make approving reference to Thomas Frank’s popular book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What’s wrong with these heartland voters? What makes them unable to see that voting Democratic is what’s best for them? Pundit Molly Ivans writes of Frank's book, “I promise y'all, this is the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests.”

I, in turn, am bewildered at this bewilderment. The conundrum can be easily understood by exploring a few points conspicuously ignored in these laments.

1) Self-interest is always dependent on personal values.

What’s best is dependent on each individual’s opinions and values. If I equate self-interest with maximizing material wealth, I’ll use that same standard to judge the interests of others. When I see a government program benefiting a group, I'll assume that those affected will support it. I’ll assume that a minimum-wage worker will automatically support whichever party raises the minimum wage.

Other people, though, value self-reliance or other ethical values more than financial considerations. The people in Kansas are far more religious than those in Berkeley, so it’s not surprising that they respond to more non-material appeals. Once we accept that individuals may legitimately hold different values, it’s no longer surprising that a Kansan’s view of his own interest isn’t what a Berkeleyite thinks it is or should be. Those motivated by non-financial values can’t be controlled by promises of more money from the government.

2) People tend to be the best judge of their self-interest

Each individual is usually in the best position to decide what's in his own interest. We experience the effects of government in our own lives. This feedback determines our idea of our own interests, and motivates us to make our political choices with care.

A Berkeley academic’s ideas about a Kansan’s interest is theoretical. He may read books and study statistics, and use them to imagine how government policies impact the Kansan’s life. This academic perspective will exaggerate factors (such as finances) that can be easily measured, while missing the non-material factors that dominate the Kansan’s actual life.

A child, a psychopath, or an idiot may be incompetent to judge his own interests, and require a care-taker to do so. These are exceptions, not the rule. Even if the Berkeleyite is better educated than the Kansan, is the typical Kansan really so stupid that others should decide what’s best for him? If Berkeleyites assume that the Kansan, like a child or idiot, doesn't know what’s best for himself... we can hardly be surprised at how unpopular Berkeley-style political thinking is in the heartland.

3) Do people really act strictly in their own self-interest? Should they?

This is perhaps the most puzzling point. The Berkeley Lefties I know express shock and disappointment that the Kansan worker can’t be relied upon to follow his self-interest (by voting for Democrats as long as they promise to help him financially). But if we ourselves aren’t strictly motivated by self-interest, why should the Topekan be?

Surely Kansans are motivated by ideas about what’s fair to others, to future generations, and about what conforms to ethical and religious values. Maybe those who ask “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” are themselves overly motivated by self-interest. That would explain their bafflement that selfish motivators fail to explain or control mid-American voters. Alternately, maybe California Lefties consider their own unselfishness to be a mark of intellectual and moral superiority, and are baffled when the inferior American masses show they're not totally self-involved.

The Berkeley political discussions I’m speaking of generally conclude that Democrats need to find a different strategy. They must somehow get it through the thick skulls of Kansans what their interests really are. Maybe someday I’ll start hearing, “What’s the matter with Berkeley? Why can’t we let Kansans decide for themselves what they value and what’s in their interest?” Maybe instead of looking for ways to force our own values on everyone in the country, we’ll start looking for ways to maximize the freedom people have to live according to their own values. When I start hearing conversations like that in the Berkeley coffee shops, I’ll know that the political landscape is ready to change.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

(Wry smile)

Stu, I live in San Francisco, but have been to school in Berkeley.

Ok: Berkeley lefties are mystified that the the people in Kansas keep voting Republican, despite the Republicans doing a poor job assisting working class and lower middle class persons--the Kansas demographic.

It seems strange to the liberals that people in Kansas could alow profound spiritual/ideological reasons to trump economics, resulting in their choice to vote Republican.

Okay...here is an araa where many in Berkeley allow idealism to trump economic self interest:

People Park is allowed to remain a homeless squat, which in turn drags down the business district on the nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue.

The small businesses in Berkeley generate much of the tax revenue needed to support social service programs needed to provide support for the street folk.

It would be in the economic self interest of Berkeley to support the university to take back the park and turn it into either student dorms or parking.

But this isnt happening. Idealism trumps economic self interest just as much in Berkeley as it does in Kansas.

We have a similar version of it in San Francisco.

I say this ruefully, having been a street outreach worker both in People's Park and in the Tenderloin district in San Fran..

Anonymous said...

Final note: I noted the People's Part situation as an example where idealism/spirituality trumps economic self interest.

This is in no way an endorsement of a specific strategy for dealng with People's Park.

Its an example of the process Stuart is describing--idealism/spiriuality trumping economic self interest.

Also nostalgia may be more important than most of us realize.

I knew a man who was a sixth generation Kansan. He told me that he, his family and many, many old Kansan families remained registered as Republicans, not because of current Republican policies, but because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln.

These families were descendants of those who fought to keep Kansas from becoming a slave state and they stayed registered as Republicans for that reason.

It may be nostalgia also hinders a rational solution to People's Park. For many persons in Berkeley, People's Park may be tied to the joys of thier own youth. To face that People's Park has to go might mean having to face one is getting old--and that ideal that gave hope and purpose in life have to be changed, or perhaps even in some cases, discarded.

This is dreadfully painful and most of us prefer to cling to something that has powerful nostalgic charge.

Stuart said...

anony wrote:
It may be nostalgia also hinders a rational solution to People's Park. For many persons in Berkeley, People's Park may be tied to the joys of thier own youth. To face that People's Park has to go might mean having to face one is getting old--and that ideal that gave hope and purpose in life have to be changed, or perhaps even in some cases, discarded.

Thanks for your thoughts, anony.

In your example... I'd call it cult-like behavior if someone adopts a political stance (e.g., keeping Peoples Park as it is and was) based on what feels good emotionally (e.g., as long as Peoples Park looks similar to how it did in the 60s, I can pretend that I'm not getting old).

People can arrive at a political stance emotionally, and then seek rational arguments to justify the stance, so they can argue it as if they'd arrived at their opinion rationally.

I'd guess the best we can do is to examine our mind carefully, so that we can be aware of the emotional pulls that make us want to support particular causes. Once recognized, we can work on refraining from using politics to force our emotional needs on others.

It always comes back to the Golden Rule, the only ethical or moral tool that makes sense to me. If I don't want other people forcing me to live according to their ideas, I'd best take great care that I give them the same consideration.

Stuart

yomamma said...

if you look at the tip of your nose you see that life is change, but people of all stripe don't want to change, maybe especially old lefties. Berkeley is the way-back machine of old lefties. The excitement and newness of the original free speech movement has congealed into quaint out- moded inanity. This is the deathly quality that many seek when they are looking to adore their past experience, which leads me to ask , when is a past experience worthy of becoming a tradition and when is it just tripe, or how could it be transformed to better serve those who come in it's wake, instead of just being a graveyard of old dreams?

Stuart said...

yomamma said...
life is change, but people of all stripe don't want to change, maybe especially old lefties. Berkeley is the way-back machine of old lefties.

I love nostalgia, when it comes to sharing memories with old friends, or listening to Pink Floyd albums. But when it comes to making serious decisions, we gotta let go of the past to get a clear view of the present.

I've got a slightly older cousin who came of age in the midst of the 60s counter-culture. She speaks so fondly of how wonderful she felt to be "on the side of the angels." I say that's scary.

That is: maybe she did good work fighting for worthwhile causes in the 60s... but in the process, she also got addicted to the sense of moral superiority, of being on the side of the angels. It's scary because as a life direction, addiction to moral superiority is deeply flawed. The ugliest problems in the world are caused by people driven by belief in their moral superiority.

Stuart

yomamma said...

Speaking of moral superiority, I was watching some of the original footage of Ciao Manhattan on U-tube, ( a decadent piece of 60's drug addeled fun! ) Of course Allen Ginsberg and Robert Thurman are in it, Uma's mommy too!
So there's a shot of this snarky guy shooting up in an airport chapel, and the voice over guy says "that's soandso , he ended up as 2nd in command with the Hare Krishnas". So see , it really is just a dance of dark and light ,not so much angels. The footage is titled Edie Sedgewick and Friends , runs a bit long but the commentary is priceless, yomamma sez , put down your bong and your black light and check it out. peace

Anonymous said...

On September 2d, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in Speedway Meadow, they're having a 40 year anniversary get together for the Summer of Love.

It will be interesting to go there and sense the vibes--will these be feel like a weed grown vacant lot full of the hulks and chassis of dead dreams?

I was serving hard time in grade school and middle school during all these goings on.

And I never could get too far into it, because my body was neurologically incompatible--I couldnt stay up past 10 pm, got sick on just one glass of wine, and I found the decibel level at rock concerts so unbearable, that despite liking the music, I could survive only by sitting hunched over with my fingers in my ears.

Smoking never did a thing for me, either. Coughed my lungs out.

I have the soul of an FDR Democrat housed in a physiology that is conservative Republican.

yomamma said...

Well then happy days are here for you, tuning in, turning on and dropping out is no longer required, just paying up! i hear there will be a summer of love wine and cheese reception for something like 150 dollars.you can probably rub elbows with the members of the tribe that ain't dead already, but I'm sure they are greatful anyway at those prices.

Stuart said...

yomamma said...
there's a shot of this snarky guy shooting up in an airport chapel, and the voice over guy says "that's soandso , he ended up as 2nd in command with the Hare Krishnas".

As you may have noticed from my website... I've got a fascination with the Krishnas, see:

http://home.comcast.net/~sresnick2/cookie.htm

I thinks it's for the same reasons we're talking about here. Krishna philosophy is the ultimate in believing that they're on the side of ultimate Good. They're serving God, and everyone else who's not in their club is deluded.

And the amazing irony is that with all this emphasis on absolute, perfect Purity and Goodness and We're On The Side of God... the Krishna organization descended into the worst decadence imaginable. Not just lying and stealing, but literally murder and child abuse. See for instance "Monkey on a Stick" for a run-down of the madness.

anony wrote...
I was serving hard time in grade school and middle school during all these goings on.

I was born in 1959, so the 60s filtered into my head this same way too. I was always being influenced by the counter-culture, but too young to participate.

I remember my older brother dressing up as a hippie for Halloween... arguments about Vietnam... my sister asking if I thought pot should be legal... Alfred E Newman on Mad magazine dressed as Tim Leary saying, "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Dead!"

I'm lucky that I was too young for the counter-culture. It must have been punishing to have your dreams soar so high and get crushed so quickly.

I'm happier slowly digesting the lessons now that the chaos is over. Maybe changing the world, being on God's side, etc, isn't such a good idea. Maybe better to throw all that away and just try to be clear and helpful to whomever appears in this moment. And then forget about that, and be ready for the next moment.

Anonymous said...

I relate to Stuart.

The first CD I purchased was 'The Wall' by Pink Floyd.

And, I am grateful for the open ness of the Sixties every time I go get a session with my Chinese Medicine physician. She's given me resources for treating my stress insomnia so that Ive been able to avoid taking potentially addictive tranquillizers.

And I learned to be a kick-ass baker by volunteering in the kitchen at SF Zen Center. Learned there how to cook vegetables and that they taste good.

Mom would roll over in her grave at that last item.

Stuart said...

Anony said...
The first CD I purchased was 'The Wall' by Pink Floyd.

Man oh man. I was in Muktananda's ashram in India for over a year when someone showed up with a Walkman (new invention since I'd come to India) and a cassette of Pink Floyd... Wish You Were Here on one side and Dark Side of the Moon on the other. Maybe that's one thing that made me leave the ashram and return to USA. Pink Floyd had demonstrated that there was still something of value in what we derisively referred to as "the world."

Also in India, I recall reading in International Newsweek about some kid in Michigan who'd committed suicide while listening to The Wall, causing public uproar. And I knew I had to get that album and give a listen. I knew it had to be something profound if it was being blamed for a suicide. I mean, no one ever killed themself over Duran Duran!

Anonymous said...

I'd liked listening to The Wall. But when I got the CD, and finally was able to read the lyrics, I was floored.

They precisely described all the painful stuff I was dealing with in therapy.

It may be that young man found that a huge amount of buried inner pain was being validated by the lyrics of The Wall--and he just didnt know how to hold and pace the emotions welling up.

And, its hard being a young man. Asking for help feels like the most shameful thing to do...

Anonymous said...

Stuart, you mention that "There’s one topic that comes up with surprising regularity: Democrats champion government programs that benefit working-class people, so why do working-class people in the American heartland favor Republicans?"

You and some of your other left-coast commenters are totally missing the point: We in the heartland DON'T WANT for GOVERNMENT to champion MORE GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS. We want goverment SMALLER and OUT OF OUR LIVES as much as possible - - including OUT OF OUR WALLETS.

It isn't all about spiritual and ideological issues. Granted, a lot of the bible-thumping evangelical types always vote republican because they perceive the Republican Party represents their religious values more closely, but among us not-that-religious types here in the heartland, the economic philosophy widely held is just different that what east and west coasters seem to ascribe to. We want smaller government and more business, be it small, mid-sized, or large corporate, so we can continue to work jobs and make money for ourselves and our families.

You folks just don't get that we in flyover country don't believe the Democratic Party really even HAS an interest in our interests anymore.

My conversion from a former liberal democrat to a staunchly convervative republican began in 1992 when, after Bill Clinton ran and won on his "it's the economy, stupid" suddenly turned around and started focusing on the rights of gays in the military and on letting his wife try to nationalize 1/7th of the US economy (the healthcare debacle).

I voted for Clinton in '92 based on hopes he'd actually DO something to improve the economy. Instead, he deeply disappointed me. And, yes, the economy DID improve during his administration I but don't attribute that to him at all - - instead, it was largely driven by advances in information technology and telecommunications...the propagation of business based on the Internet that "Al Gore invented", on the convergence of IT and telecom, and on the drive toward being Y2K compliant. Once all that was done and had fizzled, it was partially responsible for the stock market meltdown in 2000.
I don't think the go-go '90's economy had much to do with Clinton at all.

Long argument short: Heartlanders vote Republican because that party's platform STILL most closely matches our values - - our economic values AND our social, philosophical, and religious values. And just because the current president is an idiot, does NOT mean we're prepared to switch political parties.

Stuart said...

Anony said...
We in the heartland DON'T WANT for GOVERNMENT to champion MORE GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS. We want goverment SMALLER and OUT OF OUR LIVES as much as possible - - including OUT OF OUR WALLETS.

It isn't all about spiritual and ideological issues.


Wanting smaller government is an ideology, though it doesn't matter if you call it that. My point is that the great majority of the country believes in live and let live. That's why we want government out of our lives. Voting for bigger government always means forcing your values on your neighbors, even if you're not personally pointing the guns at them.

Force is necessary sometimes, but most of us want to minimize its use, so we can all live freely, as long as we don't scare the horses. The extremists on both ends of the spectrum are battling to see which side gets to use the force of government; meanwhile, the majority in the middle wants to live and let live.

We want smaller government and more business, be it small, mid-sized, or large corporate, so we can continue to work jobs and make money for ourselves and our families.

Same thing: the majority is pro-business because we know that no one ever points a gun at us to force us to shop at WalMart or to work for Exxon. We freely decide who to do business with. We don't freely decide how to deal with the government, because they do point guns at us.

Anonymous said...

Re: "It's scary because as a life direction, addiction to moral superiority is deeply flawed. The ugliest problems in the world are caused by people driven by belief in their moral superiority."
Stuart
1:13 PM

-------------------------

Amen Stuart,

Thanks for directing me to this thread. I was posting on these social organizing topics I think in October but hopped over here at your suggestion.

Leaving the Democratic Party behind has been a great help to me psychologically. I was a New Deal Democrat's daughter, but asking the government to do something about intractable social problems is a fool's game in the end. I learned this the hard way.

It looks good on paper, but do you think the Berkeley folks have any clue that it is government interference that has caused the most egregious aspects of American social problems? Odd it would seem that many Berkeley folks would have watched Star Trek fans and could relate to the Prime Directive's no interference with the internal affairs of other civilizations.

Today (now November 3) I was back doing something I did twenty years ago. I use to work in an inner city housing program. My dearest friends are still doing it. I am going to be helping out by measuring some buildings and drawing floor plans for them. They are short staffed and stressed.

And why shouldn't they be stressed? I was in a building that I could tell HAD been rehabilitated, but was trashed as only 3rd, 4th, 5th generation welfare people can do. It's easy to have alot of generations when you are popping out kids at 14. (Worked in family planning in the past too. That's another discussion.)

In the hall in a pile on the floor was mail still being delivered to the long gone residents. I packed it up and gave it to the mailman when he came by. It was the usual. Child Protective trying to collect support, a letter from an inmate in an upstate prison.

What a mess morally superior policies have made of people's lives. Destroyed their self esteem, destroyed these noble families.

If you haven't seen the film 'What Black Men Think', it is an
IN DEPTH VIEW OF HOW MYTHS, STEREOTYPES AND MISREPRESENTATIONS RENDER BLACK MEN NON-NECESSITIES IN THEIR COMMUNITIES AND FAMILIES…

http://wbmt.wordpress.com/

It is really worth seeing. I caught it on C Span last summer. Guy who made should get a major award.

Who brought us these policies? FDR, Johnson, Clinton, and oh my God watch out, another Clinton coming. They all have the moral superiority trip.

It is hard when you see suffering not to want to lend a hand. Of course we want to help. How in hell did we ever get it set up so the only one to help us when we are down and out are some bureaucrats who only care about their pay checks and when they can go home? No innovation, no bright ideas, no respect for those helped. Of course I know this is not universal, but it sure is common.

I realize that if you are going to have government it is better to have a Democrat, because they believe in government and will try to make it work. Republicans, they hate government, so they just hire their friends.

Rambling a bit, late and I can't say all I would like. but this moral superiority s**t is evil itself. Just glad to not be thinking Democrats are somehow 'holy' any more.

Sure glad my parents aren't aware I am criticizing the likes of FDR!
He was a 'saint' you know and married to an even bigger 'saint'.

Prime Directive we need it bad.

See the film if you can. Really beautiful effort by one man.

MC

Anonymous said...

Re: "have the soul of an FDR Democrat housed in a physiology that is conservative Republican.

7:10 AM
-----------------------

Anony,

You are walking Cognitive Dissonance. You should get that looked at ;-)

MC

Stuart said...

MC wrote...
Odd it would seem that many Berkeley folks would have watched Star Trek and could relate to the Prime Directive's no interference with the internal affairs of other civilizations.

The key distinction that I'm looking at these days: offering help to others is the wonderful and vital job of a human being. Forcing on others what you think will help them isn't necessarily so wonderful at all. The use of force is always quick and efficient, but the downside is monstrous.

Like you, MC, I come from a family and subculture of FDR Democrats. They, for instance, see old people getting social security checks, and it's such an obvious help to the old folks, that's apparent from the most superficial view, so how can you not love FDR for making it so?

On the other hand, you've got the millions of younger workers getting a big chunk of their paycheck deducted to make those SS payments possible. And these workers therefore have to work longer hours, and have less time for their families, friends, and community. Or they have less money to support themselves, those they care about, or charitable causes.

This harm that's brought about by FDR's system isn't as obvious as the help that the old people are getting. So if you keep a superficial world-view, it's easy to ignore the harm. Not to mention the fact that the youngest workers, and future generations, are ultimately going to get screwed... that's even easier to ignore, since babies and future generations have no voice. The only way to see the harm done by FDR's system is to make use of rationality... and who wants to do that?

Thanks for the "What Black Men Think" link. My liberal friends take it as an article of faith that if, for instance, a high school student wouldn't get into a particular college based on his talents as an individual, but you admit him based on his "race," then you're helping him. Seems highly questionable to me.