Labels and Boxes

Last week I had a typical yet interesting Facebook exchange with an Ecuadorian. I believe he spent some time in the US, and may have family there, but mostly he does one man shows around Ecuador.

On Inauguration Day, he posted a simple “Welcome to Socialism”. Comments were mixed, mine was rather tame in comparison to some – “Anyone who thinks Joe Biden is a socialist either knows nothing about him or doesn’t understand the word.”

A few days later he noticed my comment, and replied by asking if I was an expert in socialism? I said, “No I am not, but I do read history books and know how to use a dictionary. Are you and expert in American politics?”

His reply to my question was to use the legal dictum first propounded in the case of Rubber v Glue, “Are YOU an expert in American politics?”. To which I replied, “No, but I grew up in the US, was educated there, live there now, worked in the US Senate for 14 years, and met and spoke with more than dozen Senators and their staffs, including then Senator Biden. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest I’m better informed about American politics than a gig musician in Ecuador.”

His witty and thoughtful response? Within minutes he had deleted my comments and blocked me.

I admit my reply was not without snark, but I did not call him names or say anything that was not true.

The more I thought about this (to me) amusing exchange, the more I began to see this as part of the problem America will have dealing with the past 12-15 years of increasingly hateful rhetoric and divisive speech.

Sometimes it is referred to as tribalism, but the issue is that more and more people are trying their hardest to sort everyone into nice neat boxes and label them either “us” or “them”. Worse, they often do not even know what the labels they are using mean. Words like libtards, liberals, Trumpers, socialists, communists – all they are aimed at is provoking an emotional response, and all they seem to mean is “people I disagree with or don’t like”.

Even more sinister, in many cases Americans don’t even know why they are applying a particular label. They’ve just been told by someone on the news or the Internet that this person or group are socialists without providing any proof or examples from their policies or behaviors.

The main problem with all of this, is that virtually no one fits neatly into any one category. Life is not all black and white, not even shades of gray. It is all of the colors of the rainbow.

It used to be fashionable to describe yourself politically as, “Well, I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” Now you are either in one narrowly defined tribe or you’re a satanist pedophile who hates America.

To see what I’m talking about here, let’s start with the label “Socialist” since it seems to be most mis-used lately. What exactly are the definitions of socialism and capitalism?

According to Mirriam-Webster SOCIALISM is define as:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

CAPITALISM is defined as:

An economic system in which a society’s means of production are held by private individuals or organizations, not the government, and where products, prices, and the distribution of goods are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

I cannot think of a single individual in American politics today that advocates NO private property, or complete control and ownership of all means of production by the government.

However, I can think of several examples of government ownership or administration. Do you support government using your tax dollars to build a national highway system? Then you must be a socialist, right? After all, in a pure capitalist society, private companies or individuals would build all the roads where ever it was justified economically, and charge a toll fee only to those who use them.

Do you fancy a group of mercenaries defending our country? Several for-hire corporations that maintain and control the nuclear arsenal? After all, having your tax dollar support a government administered military is socialism.

I could go on and on. We do not have any school age children, but closet socialist that I must be, I don’t object to funding a public education system. I’m okay with a non-profit fire department and police force as well.

On the other hand, how dedicated are we to the capitalist system? If we want our products, prices, and distribution determined by competition in a free market, why do we have our taxes used to bail out banks? Last year we gave millions to cruise lines whose ships are not even registered in the US, and pay no US taxes. We pay farmers not to grow some crops, we give money to the auto industry, and set price controls on imports and exports. What happened to allowing competition in a free market?

The truth is, our government is a combination of socialist and capitalist principles. We practice corporate socialism when we divert tax money to businesses and capitalism when it comes to selling health insurance to citizens.

Likewise, human beings are not all socialist, all communist, all liberal, or all conservative. Most Americans are a mix, a little more of this or that depending on the subject. Another good example is that there are no “blue states” and “red states”. Every state is a mix of both: you can’t punish “blue states” without also hurting the “red voters” that live there, and vice versa.

Here’s where we start to get to the root of the problem. A couple of years ago in a blog post I brought up Dr. Yuval Noah Harari and his theory that the big breakthrough for homo sapiens as a species, the thing that enabled us to expand and push out the six or so other homo species, was our unique ability to believe in imaginary things. To quote from that article;

Dr. Harari argues quite well that the defining characteristic that allowed homo sapiens to out-evolve and surpass the other genus members is a cognitive ability. The ability to create “imagined realties” – things like money, religions, political parties or corporations – and then act like they are real in order to control behavior of large groups.

For example, let’s say you live in a condo building with 16 units, and you are going to elect an HOA president. You know all of the potential candidates, you’ve had dinner with many of them, perhaps even gone to social events. You’ve talked to them about their likes and dislikes, and feel like you have a good idea of their character. You make your nomination and cast your vote according to your personal knowledge of them.

Now, consider voting for Mayor in a medium sized city, say about 200,000 citizens. There’s a good chance you know nothing at all personally about any of the candidates. So how do you vote? You choose the one who’s imagined realities most closely align with yours. If you are a white male and think of yourself as a “liberal” and belong to the Catholic Church, you are probably not going to vote for a black female “conservative” who is an atheist.

If you knew them personally, you may find the the woman is a much better candidate than the man, but you will naturally assume you should vote for your “team”.

Politicians have been aware of this forever of course, even if only on an instinctual level. They stay in power by dividing people into groups, and setting one against the other.

Probably the biggest change recently is how cynically and openly they do it.

Two recent examples can be seen in Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Ted Cruz. Both make no secret of wanting to run for president in 2024, or of their naked hunger for the big box of Trump voters.

Senator Hawley recently cried foul and begged for fundraising dollars because his “First Amendment Rights” had been violated. A publishing company had decided they did not want their name associated with someone many felt helped to incite the violence at the Capitol to raise money and his own public standing, and cancelled his book contract.

The First Amendment of course says only “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now Senator Hawley graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School. He clerked for John Roberts (Supreme Court), was Missouri Attorney General, and taught law at St. Paul’s School in London and the University of Missouri School of Law. There can be no doubt that he understands a private company choosing to cancel a contract has absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment stricture against Congress passing restrictive laws.

No, unless you choose to believe the well-educated and experienced lawyer was unaware of this basic information, the only other conclusion is that he believes the American people are stupid, ignorant, and/or uniformed enough that he can lie with impunity. “Cancel culture” are buzz words to provoke feelings rather than thought.

Then of course there is Smilin’ Ted Cruz. He recently tweeted against the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement, stating that the new president is “more interested views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.”

Several things here. First, does the Senator who graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law not understand that it is called the Paris Agreement only because it was signed there by representatives from 190 countries (we would have joined Iraq, Turkey and Iran if we dropped out)? Of course he does, he just thinks you are too stupid to know that.

Second, doesn’t he know there is a Paris, Texas? Wouldn’t that have been a better comparison than to remind people he helped incite a riot by trying to overturn the votes in Pittsburgh? Again, he doesn’t think the box of folks he is targeting will even remember that.

Which brings me to one last proof that our leaders believe you are stupid, or at least too lazy to think about what they are saying. All of the seditious members of Congress have been repeating over and over that their objections to the vote was that the way the elections were held in key states were “unconstitutional”.

That seems to be the go-to agreement for anything you don’t like these days. It is unconstitutional! What does the US Constitution actually say about how national elections are held?

That takes a little more reading, as there have been amendments and modifications along the way. But basically, the Federal government can enforce laws against voter discrimination, but otherwise the US Constitution gives the power of deciding how the elections are held entirely to the State legislatures. So it is up to the individual State Constitutions and laws to determine whether election results were legally obtained and certified.

In Pennsylvania for example, 15 lawsuits were filed either questioning the legality of the State’s process, or asking the Federal Courts to invalidate the process. The ones asking for Federal appeal were dropped, because again, the US Constitution says the States have the control. The ones questioning the state laws were either dropped or ruled against, often by Republican judges, who stated the election was held according to state laws. Several case reached the Republican dominated State Supreme Court, which also found the claims baseless.

Long story short, you could actually build a stronger case that a Senator from Texas and another from Missouri trying to challenge the results of an election in Pennsylvania are themselves acting in an unconstitutional manner!

But they know most of the voters they are aiming to box up are all going to focus on the label “unconstitutional” and go right along with them. Even now, Senator Hawley is tweeting to his half a million followers about a front page editorial in a paper with 250,000 subscribers where he wails about how he is being muzzled.

No logical conflict there, right?

Meanwhile Senator Cruz is tweeting pictures of himself posing with National Guard troops in the Capitol, thanking them for their service. He would like you to forget that he is part of the reason they have to be there.

It is mind-boggling to me sometimes how much blatant hypocrisy is displayed these days. The same party that thought we needed to investigate President Clinton for six years over a failed 10-year old real estate deal now think that when it comes to a President who helped incite an insurrection that resulted in five dead only three weeks ago we should “just move on, don’t dwell on it.”

Speaking of boxes, I think I’ll climb down from mine now. I believe I’m done with political posts for a while. I would like to think that with the new administration and a new Senate we might actually be able to make some progress towards the many crises now facing the country. I want to believe that we can finally recognize that we are being forced into imaginary boxes and slapped with narrow-minded labels that only serve to keep us at odds and more easily controlled.

Is it too much to want our political leaders from both parties to put the country ahead of their own power? To be honest with us instead of treating us like ignorant fools who believe the most egregious lies and justifications without question? To work together to fight a deadly pandemic, an economic decline, and growing inequality instead of fighting over who inherits the ashes?

I wish it wasn’t so hard to answer those questions.

5 Comments

  • Kathryn Jones says:

    Jim, well said.
    I say stuff like that a lot to my bathroom mirror–or my poor endlessly patient brother. We could basically spend the next 4 years working through all the stunning ways in which T***** fostered the culture that has brought us to this point in time. As alarming as his words were—spurring my move to Cuenca—-that wasn’t what scared me.
    For me, the scarier thought is that there are that many citizens ready to be dazzled…. I was in a forest fire situation once upon a time…..I was safe, but I stood atop a small hill and watched trees burst into flame. Some of them were a good distance from each other, but you would hear this chewing sound, and see flames making their way down the opposite hillside and then a crackle and then a WHOOSH! and a tree several yards away would literally burst, from top to bottom into flame. The intensity of that raising the hair on your arms.
    As I have tried to understand the events/ results in our political climate, I liken it to that forest fire. Not enough rain, intense heat and brittle dryness and all it takes is a careless match or cigarette butt and there you go.
    The hateful rhetoric, the arrogance of being told over and over and over again that all your frustration can be resolved by “any means necessary”….a deluge of false or misleading info being thrown at you on an hourly basis? WHOOSH!
    I was taught that those who forget history?, they are doomed to repeat it. I get that—reading history is a road map of repetition…my major in college and a major source of reading for me now. I was also taught “look it up”….a trip to the library, haul out the Encyclopedia Britannica, find newspaper articles, at least 2-3 and always read “the other side’s view”….then–most importantly, make up your own mind!
    My brother is a thoughtful person, and he sees tribalism in many examples, I have learned a lot from him. Your comments on the “labeling” are a good perspective also.
    I am coming up on 71, this is not my fight anymore…but I remember a day when it was…..hypocrisy….yes….but when did we stumble on to the path of defining things according to what we want to believe, we use the same words….but with totally unqualified definitions?
    “Go ahead and hate your neighbor
    Go ahead and cheat a friend,
    Do it in the name of Heaven
    You can justify it in the end—-
    There won’t be any trumpets blowing
    Come the judgement day,
    In the bloody morning after…….
    One tin soldier rides away.

    Respectfully,
    Kathryn

  • Gale Ormiston says:

    Once again, your literary arrow hits the bullseye. Refreshing candor that I am so in agreement with. A pity it will likely never reach the target that most needs its puncture. Carry on, my friend.
    Gale

  • Mary Riley says:

    oh my what an informed and sadly needed article….i am making my list of people to forward this too. Thank you again Jim for your concern about our future

  • […] around my head this morning when they collided with the memory of a comment one reader had on my last post about how she used to look things up in the library. Suddenly, some aspects of the US today […]

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