Sunday, July 26, 2009

Can reason beat emotion?

The struggle over health care will, alas, take quite a while to have a significant effect on American lives no matter how it turns out--a political liability in an age of instant gratification. It represents both an attempt to begin to bring the United States closer to other major industrialized countries (and perhaps to keep the United States an industrial country at all), and an effort to restore a critical American political tradition that has been steadily eroding since the Great Society. The outcome remains extremely uncertain--and the passage of legislation this year will be only the beginning in any event--but as I watch the debate unfold, it seems clearer and clearer that our democracy's capacity to function is being tested by this remarkable struggle.

The battle between emotion and reason has been a recurring theme of these posts for years, all the more so since we have replaced a President who proudly relied almost completely upon emotion--his "instincts"--with one who turns more instinctively towards logic and reason than any President since John F. Kennedy. Indeed, the battle between the Democrats and Republicans has become largely a battle of reason against emotion, which is why the Republicans remain the strongest in the least educated parts of the country, and rely so heavily on the most primal emotions, including greed, the desire to kill (gun rights), and the fear of sex. While I remain hopeful that reason can still hold the balance in western civilization, I also believe that its triumph can never be complete. Indeed, the greatest and most destructive wars in history, the two world wars, took place at the climax of the age of reason in the first half of the twentieth century, and the combatants, as I pointed out in Politics and War, claimed, and believed themselves, that they were fighting for rational goals. The almost complete eclipse of reason in our political discourse, however, is at least as great a cause for concern--and that is what President Obama, coolly and persistently, is trying to fight. So far it looks like an uphill struggle.

The Democrats are in effect fighting with their emotional tied behind their back, because forty years of unremitting Republican propaganda have effectively discredited the emotional appeals upon which they used to rely. The experience of the last saeculum (1868-1945) was very different. Beginning in 1896 and continuing through the First World War, the distribution of wealth was a major issue of American politics, and reformers, while only intermittently successful, did not feel on the defensive. They went into an eight-year eclipse beginning in 1920, but came back stronger than ever in the midst of the depression. And so it was that Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of his re-election campaign in 1936, had no compunction about rousing the feelings of the average American against the plutocrats who had turned against him. I quote:

"We have not come this far without a struggle and I assure you we cannot go further without a struggle.

"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

"For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace‹business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."

Now Roosevelt, as I have pointed out here, actually enjoyed more bipartisan support of which Barack Obama could not even dream during his first term. The Tennessee Valley Authority, to take one example--a huge an unprecedented undertaking designed to put the government into the middle of the economic development of an impoverished region--was actually the brainchild of a great Republican Progressive, George Norris of Nebraska. Perhaps that liberated him to go after the irreconcilables among the Republicans in such emotional terms--and the electorate in 1936 rewarded him with the votes of 48 out of 50 states. Such rhetoric, however, has successfully been demonized by the Republican Party and its media propaganda arms as "class warfare," "socialism," "European-style", and so on, to such an extent that not one Democrat that I can see is speaking boldly and firmly for economic justice. Under Roosevelt marginal tax rates on the richest Americans reached 91%; now Nancy Pelosi is trying to sneak 50% rates on incomes of one million or more into the health bill, a proposal to which the President declares himself "open." The single-payer option, the real solution to our health care crisis, has been defined out of the debate as "too radical" from the beginning. Democrats seem to rely rhetorically on "reform," broader coverage, and cost-cutting (which is most certainly necessary), because true social and economic democracy has become the third rail of American politics. We have had one or two indications that high marginal tax rates might return, most notably at the time of the AIG bonuses earlier this year. If the nation is faced once again with a prolonged period of depression for the mass of the population, combined with the enrichment of the few, higher marginal rates could return. But we are nowhere near that point yet thanks to the long-term success of anti-government Republican rhetoric.
In fact, emotion lies at the heart of the health care debate in another way as well. Health care is one of the stronger sectors of our economy--most, if not all of which, I regret to say, are based upon the exploitation of the most primitive emotions. In the case of health care, the industry, backed by the resources both of the government (Medicare and Medicaid) and generous private health plans, exploits fear--the fear of pain (which gave us Vioxx, an almost completely unnecessary drug), of death (which leads to unnecessary screenings and surgeries for, for instance, prostate cancer), and even of not enough sex (which is fueling the multi-billion dollar "erectile dysfunction" industry which I encounter every time I watch a live American sports event.) The financial sector has grown by devising various forms of financial alchemy, including subprime mortgages and derivatives, both of which for a time turned lead into gold, and are now, in other ways, at work again. The defense industry fuels the fear of war (although that fear, interestingly enough, finally seems to be ebbing as a political force, as suggested by the defeat of the F-22 program.) And the food industry--about which I learned a great deal of depressing information in the film, Food, Inc.,, which I highly recommend--lives off our craving for salt, sugar, and fat. Agriculture and diet based upon health, or even genuine enjoyment of food, would look entirely different from what we have now. Meanwhile, large segments of another growth industry, academia--including the humanities such as literary criticism and history--have explicitly rejected reason in favor of emotional approaches based upon the emotional issues of the late twentieth century. The academy thrives, ironically, not because of what it teaches, but because it remains the gateway to highly paid professions.

Against this background, can President Obama succeed? He has, to be sure, critical emotional assets of his own, most notably his rhetorical skills, his own and his wife's personal charisma and his appeal to the under-30 generation, who are indeed far less emotional than their parents, who still dominate the media. And should he eventually be driven--as I think he will--to abandon bipartisanship by the unremitting hostility of the Republican Party, he will do so with a clear conscience and a good record of having tried.

Turning to other news of the week, President Obama also showed a charming ability to admit error when he substantially repudiated his initial comments about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Refusing once again to duck a difficult issue, may I say that I think the President's second, more even-handed comment was very much in order. Most commentators are missing a critical issue in this particular episode. Professor Gates may have been a victim of racial profiling, but not by the police. The police did not initiate the incident--the young woman who saw the Professor and his chauffeur trying to force open the front door did. They were simply responding, as duty requires them to do, to a call. And to be quite frank, the manner in which Professor Gates greeted them did him no credit. The police have become far more aggressive towards everyone during my adult life, and I would suggest that anyone, regardless of race, age, or gender, who speaks to a police officer today in the way that he did is behaving very foolishly indeed. His attempt to dismiss the officers by showing them his Harvard ID, rather than his driver's license, was also unfortunate. Yes, the officer made a bad situation worse by allowing his own emotions to carry him away and putting on the handcuffs, and it would have been better if he had not. But it will indeed be fitting--and further testimony to our President's remarkable political skills--if the whole affair does indeed end with the officer, the professor and the President meeting in the White House for a beer or two. The question of how to translate such an event into the beginning of the reform of the American health care system, however, remains open.

15 comments:

JRM said...

Sorry you got it wrong Mr Kasier, the 991 tape of the belligerent professor Gates reveals no identification of race on the part of the 911 caller. You simply desired not to point your blame finger at a the professor since he's a man of color and you fear reprisal just like the obama-mania media and most of our most honorable congressional representatives. Your credibility is in the spittoon sir.

JRM said...

sorry forgot to proofread 911

J. said...

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace - business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering."

Amazing how well that statement fits today as well as 1936. It's depressing as well - are these eternal forces that we have to battle? Or just reoccuring conditions of human nature?

antonias said...

I find the idea that the current healthcare discussion pits "emotion" against "reason" startling and inadequate. The facts of what nationalized healthcare would look like are readily available in Europe, Canada and, here at home, in Massachusetts. Few Americans would be satisfied with that approach. The vast majority of Americans are well served under the current system and would be better served if they made decisions based on prices and service, which they would if insurance focused only on catastrophic medical situations. As we all know from basic economics, when goods are free, consumers will consume as much as they can obtain which is causing the current "medicalization" of so many normal conditions. But the single fastest way to reduce medical expense is tort reform to reduce malpractice insurance expense. The motivation for so-called healthcare reform is a naked bid by leftists for control. The author's contemptuous and disrepectful view of all who are in "red" states as "emotional" because of the issues they support is indicative of arrogance. Some political factions in this country may not approve or respect the choices their fellow citizens are making, but it's unacceptable to try to control or limit their choices by limiting their freedoms. Further, the idea of passing a healthcare bill that has not been thoroughly read and reviewed by all elected officials and their staffs, as well as all members of the public who are interested, is also arrogant.

Nikhil said...

I do agree that several industries (healthcare, defense etc)rely on fear and emotion to turn a profit. However, I feel that when it comes to healthcare, your tone is unnecessarily derisive. I am referring to your discussion about how "fear of death" makes people seek unnecessary medical tests and screenings. People should be concerned about their health and not treat it so nonchalantly. My experience in healthcare has shown me that most people, are in fact, very careless when it comes to their health. Several patients are non-compliant with medications and difficult to schedule for appointments. I think we should be advocating for a system whereby patients are rewarded for staying on top of their healthcare needs (visiting their GP regularly, eating well and exercising). Plus, you are not a physician. You are not necessarily an authority on whether or not people seek unnecessary care.

Woody Hanson said...

Mr. Kaiser may have studied history but his objective today seems to rewrite it.

Mr. Kaiser do you believe that the U.S. Constitution is a binding contract between the citizens of this country and our government? If so not one of your comments is in any way reflective of that.

You point out that "Under Roosevelt marginal tax rates on the richest Americans reached 91%; now Nancy Pelosi is trying to sneak 50% rates on incomes of one million or more into the health bill, a proposal to which the President declares himself "open."" An unbiased reporter of history would also inform the reader that same 91% tax code contained a myriad of allowable income deductions and loopholes which the richest Americans used to reduce their taxable income to next to nothing. Those deductions and loophole do not exist today.

As pointed out in a previous comment you need to be less biased if you seek credibility.

You take great pleasure in selecting business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism and war profiteering as enemies of peace. Why did you not mention the U.S. Congress?

Does your recollection of history not include Barney Frank and others who coerced the banking industry to make untenable loans to the "unfortunate"? Those forced loans and the purchase of them by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the primary cause of the current financial mess we're in right now. The key is sir, if you don't put that in the history books it will never have happened.

Good job!

I do not have the time or space to call you to task on the many other half truths contained in your writings but an educated reader would recognize your agenda is not to provide an education in history but to provide an education in history as you see it necessary to further your agenda.

Anonymous said...

Your Roosevelt comments and quotes are "spot on". However your blunder on the 911 caller in the Gates matter is shockingly similar to Obama's initial contribution to the issue. But you seem to be able to readily dismiss Obama's mistake, so I asume you'll grant yourself the same exception from personal responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Reason has already beat emotion. See http://actualfreedom.com.au/richard/

Mother, said...

Whats your view of Obama bowing to the Muslim king?
My stomach still churns over that incedential incedent and the only benign explination is that he is simply clueless.
But I do have a more cynicle point of view.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kaiser: You should be removed from the Naval War College if you do in fact teach there. You are a biased liberal intellectual and useful idiot being used by those Marxist radicals who are trying to destroy America as we know it. I dont intend to stop here.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm wrong but winning 48 of 50 states in the 1936 election was quiet a feat given that 50 states did not yet exist.

Stan Kreis said...

Kaiser writes,"The battle between emotion and reason has been a recurring theme of these posts for years, all the more so since we have replaced a President who proudly relied almost completely upon emotion--his "instincts"--with one who turns more instinctively towards logic and reason than any President since John F. Kennedy."

I would like to see you prove this assertion about Bush 43, and then pass your thesis through a gauntlet of academics. What a really, really, really (that's three "reallys") silly statement. Don't most decisions nowadays get done with institutions such as think tanks? Are they making seat of the pants, emotional decisions?

You really are a pompous academic, aren't you? My advice: get off your high horse.

You in the Naval War Collge? Oh, good grief.

Andrew said...

You write: "Meanwhile, large segments of another growth industry, academia--including the humanities such as literary criticism and history--have explicitly rejected reason in favor of emotional approaches based upon the emotional issues of the late twentieth century. The academy thrives, ironically, not because of what it teaches, but because it remains the gateway to highly paid professions."

The "growth" in the "industry" of academia is very largely a result of the transformation of universities into luxury "life experiences" for students and the gross ballooning of the administrative and "business" dimensions of running an academic institution. Of academic disciplines to see continued growth and prosperity for its students, the sciences, business, economics, and communications are at the top -- they produce desirable students with promising career futures, and draw opportunities for investment.

The very last people to be experiencing any "growth" in academia these days are humanities departments -- the Modern Language Association has produced shocking figures about the steep decline in job opportunities for scholars in literature in language (over 50% of graduate students in literature do not find employment in the year that they complete their degree, and many linger in adjunct status for many years, liable to be released without notice based on the budgetary whims of the university). These part-time teachers, who make up 40% of the teaching force, receive shockingly little pay for their work. (link to source)

Could you clarify what you mean when you say that humanities scholars have "explicitly rejected reason in favor of emotional approaches based upon the emotional issues of the late twentieth century"? The only thing I can figure is that you're referring to critical theory, which attempts to make sense of aesthetic, cultural, and historical objects from a particular point of view, sometimes political, sometimes not. The aim of using critical theory is to help us encounter books, television, the media, political discourse, and the past not with an emotional, gut-based response, but with considered distance, so that we can say something useful without getting overwhelmed by the complexity and power of art and history.

I've got to say, I'm shocked that you look to the humanities, home to some of the most outspokenly critical voices against the rising trend of emotion-baiting politics and "say it until it's true" rhetoric, as a target for the kind of issues you address here.

David Kaiser said...

Whether it's called critical theory, cultural studies, or postmodernism, it amounts to projecting current prejudices onto the past. Enrollments in the humanities have dropped because most undergraduates are not interested in reliving college and grad school bull sessions from the late 1960s and 1970s. In history, new trends also take the oppressive state and institutions for granted, rather than spending any time asking how things could be different. I am not sympathetic to complaints about falling humanities budgets because the product humanities departments are offering are so poor that they don't deserve any more money. I wish I could have done more about this situation myself, but I couldn't.

Andrew said...

What you call "projecting current prejudices onto the past," I call figuring out where current prejudices came from, historically, so we can fix those problems and make the world more equitable. If you don't learn from your past, you're doomed to repeat it, right?

I'm curious as to what you imagine less poor humanities "products" might be? (And I'd point out that you just betrayed the key to our different points of view -- humanists don't make "products," we foster critical thinking skills and aid in the creation of intelligent citizens who can decide for themselves based on rational encounters with their world. And you can't put a price tag on that or get job prospects from that, so in contemporary American consciousness, it isn't worth squat.)

As I pointed out, critical theory can be made as political or as apolitical as you like. Feminist studies can be used simply to uncover and retell the lives, stories, and writings of women that have otherwise been overlooked, or it can be used to critique the social, political, economic, what have you structures that led to those lives being overlooked. Postmodernism can be used to bring to light how our sense of who we are as individuals is being redefined in a world that's going global and virtual, or it can be used to critique the social, political, economic, cultural, what have you effects of those changes on various peoples across the globe.

... the same way that a conversation about the humanities can both observe changing trends in values, institutions, and education, or it can be (mis)used in the service of a social, political, cultural critiques.

Sure, sometimes those critiques can go too far and run off the rails, but it's unfair to judge the entirety of humanistic discourse and its discipline based on the political agenda of a handful of thinkers who go beyond the pale, don't you think?

By the way, I'd also point out that your response, instead of addressing the real issue I identified -- your accusation that contemporary humanistic study is "emotional" and contributes to the "emotionalism" of our modern day cultural climate -- took the, dare I say it, emotional route of bashing the discipline as irrelevant and tendentious. "College and grad school bull sessions from the late 1960s and 1970s," "offerings are so poor that they don't deserve any more money" -- sounds like gut-based, emotion-baiting rhetoric to me, if ever I heard it.

Looks like someone could do with an English course.