Politics and Empathy in the US – Post Election

Conor and Coho — mid pandemic

Writer’s note: if you’re not familiar with my work, I encourage you to read all the masthead posts first. I write for the perceptive, not the judgmental. They’re really different centers of the brain we work out of. Short version — if you’re reading this and sorting it immediately into good/bad categories, this piece is likely not for you. For those that have difficulties, I recommend this link.

Not with a bang, but a whimper the election season has ended. Donald Trump did indeed lose the election, but he didn’t lose it by the standard that most on the Left thought he SHOULD lose it. And on the Right, the war goes on regarding whether the election is even over. I fully support the right of organizations like Stop The Steal to exhaust their legal remedies. That’s their right, and reading the blather on the MSM calling them traitors and such is just wrong. The reason for a legal system goes back to (and probably past) the Ancient Greeks, and really was a proposition to move past the capriciousness of the Gods in deciding fates. If you need a refresher, read Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, which has wife killing husband-king killing concubine, ending with son killing wife. We got to a legal system precisely to prevent that kind of thing from happening, and it would do us well to remember these lessons, regardless of the various claims made. Legal systems allow relatively non-violent paths for airing grievances, and by the time most parties are done, well, they’re done.

Summing up the election is hard, but here’s a first shot. Trump ran on the notion of a non-functional federal government remaining non-functional. It was a total nihilistic endeavor, but resonant. And trust me, Trump fans, he would have delivered. Most people have little idea what ANY government, federal or otherwise, actually does for them, and the fact that the vote was split still close to 50/50 indicated that almost half on the Right side of the political spectrum thought it wasn’t worth the bother.

And on the Left? Two candidates, still serving as ciphers, with few policy positions other than “we hate the other guy, and he’s responsible for everyone dying of COVID” were elected. Folks may argue that Biden was elected to serve as Grandfather-in-Chief, and Harris, who, if anything, was a “Tough on Crime” politician, in the middle of a nation wracked with concerns about police violence, added some moral heft to the position of “we’re not all racists.” My opinion — if you’re not crazy by now, then you’re not paying attention. Of course, if you’re not paying attention, then, at this point, you might not be crazy. So there IS that. I’m definitely counting on you. Just make sure you’re not crazy, OK?

And like some crazy Greek Chorus, the media lined up behind the messages. Everyone in the country, split in two, ready to go to war with each other — for freedom, against freedom, for masks for COVID containment, against masks, racists or non-racists. On and on. Trump does deserve a fair bit of credit for the media environment, in that as a Relational Disruptor, well, he did what he does. But the need to put the views of such an individual in a neat box led the media down the path to their own ruination. It was disinformation vs. misinformation.

And what is reality? Here we are, almost a month after the election. Let it soak in. There is NO civil war. There even hasn’t been any murders done in the name of politics. Oddly enough, we’ve had reduced public shootings since the election (one that I’m aware of?) That’s saying something for America, where such events are our national stock in trade. Baby steps, folks.

It might dawn on folks that what we’ve really been treated to is a large expanse of political theater, with self-appointed actors, selected for the broader stage based on the quality of the performance, as well as alignment with v-Memes. The grocery store shelves are still stocked with food, and outside the reality that we’ve thrown a good hunk of the population under the bus (as well as our children) because of COVID. Nowhere are militias of either stripe (Proud Boys, or Antifa) actually running a community. That’s just a fact. And don’t tell me it’s going to happen next week (or in 21 days — the Covid Doomers lament.) These organizations don’t have the, well, organization, to create anything resembling a functional government. Hell, they can barely organize a protest or counter-protest that actually mouths a cause other than “freedom” or “racism”. Policy, schmolicy. Old farts like me that actually want to see and understand a piece of legislation and reform institutions to functionality– well, we’re on the outs.

So what is the setting we as a nation have descended into? If anything, is the comfort of what John Robb calls “networked tribes”. In the absence of any true, stand-up geographic institutions, we’ve organized ourselves memetically on the Internet. We have found our people, or at least those we think of as our people, based on Facebook and Twitter. And in the face of the policing of those platforms, some have set out for the territories. Parler anyone? I can’t bear to look.

In the process of that social disintegration — and it is social, not physical/material — remember those stocked grocery store shelves, and fleet of Fedex trucks bringing all our middle class wants and needs to our doors? – what we’ve lost is the operating v-Meme that we actually function at. I’ve talked about this in the past, but the short version is that we all function at some level of development automatically, with some level of sophistication, dependent on past education, life experience and such. I may be a global thinker, but the reality is I’m Performance/Goal oriented. You come to me with a problem, don’t expect me to listen as much as an emotionally-deeper empathetic person might. I’m going to tell you how to fix it.

But along that path of devolution, we also hold on to fragments of tools from the different stages of life we’ve passed through, and now are figuring out exactly how these fit inside our new, deeply fragmented paradigm. If you’re a skilled writer, for instance, you’re still likely to write stories at a high level. But those stories will be couched in your tribe’s paradigms. And if not, expect to be driven into the wilderness. Take a look at my situation. I’m far from a COVID-denier. But I write about the system dynamics, as well as the nuance of the pandemic. That does not make me popular with my Lefty Tribe, who still trumpet the potential of COVID as the Andromeda Strain. Look folks — I was writing about mask efficacy BEFORE it was cool.

The problem with such devolution is that honest Tribes were never supposed to have access to the higher knowledge structures that we co-created jointly. Without the scaffolding of a well-organized society, we were necessarily limited in reach and application of our more powerful tools. And all is not lost. Thank goodness our institutions still function at least moderately well. Can you imagine if the most fervent paranoid fantasies of those on the Left regarding the professionalism of the military actually came true, and they lined up behind Trump? Of course, they didn’t — because most members of the military are honest, good-hearted people, like all Americans. We are not as bad as the media would have us believe. But that would make for a boring theatre presentation.

What are we really, and who is really behind our government? I’m not talking about QAnon or the Deep State. It’s a great question. And just yesterday, I found what I think is the best surface-level description written in this piece by Michael Lind, a professor with a long, diverse career in law and journalism. He’s currently at the LBJ School at UT-Austin, and his analysis is incisive to the core. Lind argues that the poor don’t matter at all, that racism is really not the driver when poverty is factored in (I agree with this mostly) and that what we are really witnessing is a conflict between those of us afraid of slipping into the underclass on both sides of the political aisle. He calls this a Double Horseshoe, and it is spot on.

From the Internet magazine The Bellows, by Michael Lind

Lind maintains that the population is roughly split 33% on the top, and 67% on the bottom, and no one really cares much about the bottom/poor, other than they don’t want to BE poor. His argument is that the three dominant castes in politics are the professional bourgeoisie (that would be me, for instance, and other members still possessing a bureaucratic position that pays well enough to live a middle class lifestyle) , the managerial elite (self-explanatory) and the small-business bourgeoisie — the owners of the businesses, like hair salons and restaurants, to name but a few, that are then employing the Underclass. And these groups, not surprisingly, are interested in their perpetuation. Though he doesn’t say it, he’s really talking about v-Meme perpetuation, which, considering the stressors in the current milieu, are a jumble.

He splits out the Underclass into two groups — the Hub City working class, consisting primarily of service workers, and the Heartland working class — people still employed in manufacturing, ag, etc. The main discriminator, which people know intrinsically, is that the dividing line rests at a minimum on a Bachelor’s level college degree. I highly recommend you read his piece.

The challenge we face as a united society is to redraw the map in our minds on how our society works. I’d argue the Double Horseshoe is a great place to start. Of course, we’re in no danger of adopting such a rational paradigm any time soon. The Right is hung up on the idea of “bootstrap pulling”, and the Left has decided on racism. So in an attempt to at least help things along in an empathetic framework, I think it’s fair to ask what the empathy level, as well as developmental requirements of each of these groups.

Starting at the top, we are currently in the middle of an enormous consolidation — what friend Adam Townsend (@adamscrabble on Twitter) has called the “Biggest Roll-up of Power in History” — around the existence of the Megacorps. Townsend argues that all you have to do is follow the money, and it’s a very strong argument. As a trader, he follows the personal philosophy of “skate to where the puck is going.” And where is the puck going? Large, consolidated defense industries, manipulating our notion of security needs, as well as actors like Tesla, Amazon, and Google. It takes only a quick look to see that during the COVID pandemic, the biggest winner was Jeff Bezos, whose personal fortune is now closing on $200B, and is expected to be worth >$1T by 2026.

What that kind of wealth does is create a disorienting bubble that anyone over any modest number of millions can create. And that bubble does not promote mental health. Witness the recent fate of Zappos’ billionaire, Tony Hsieh, as good-hearted a billionaire as you could find. The Forbes piece is worth reading as a cautionary tale. In spite of his solid intentions of building community (he moved into the center of his downtown Las Vegas re-vamp, before relocating to Park City and making himself crazy doing Nitrous Oxide) he lost his life due to suspicious smoke inhalation injuries in a house in Connecticut. Billions of dollars have the effect of creating a magical bubble, regardless of strength of character, or supposed morality. Hard fact — we’re supposed to have to deal with some percentage of difficult people. We may not like it, but it keeps us sane. Imagine deciding “hey, I want my life to include a super-famous singer” and then punching an app for a plane to fly you around. If you don’t think that messes with your brain, I’ve got news for you. Create your own Tribal v-Meme, populated with folks from an anime’ show of your own creation, coupled with magic winged chariots. The ending is almost predictable. Icarus, anyone?

And then there is the larger corporate dynamics that have created profound psychopathy at the top of the Megacorps themselves. I’ve written about Boeing here. Latest news — Boeing wants to move essentially the whole 787 operation to South Carolina from the Puget Sound. Talk about relational disruption.

Off to either side are the Professional Bourgeoisie, and the Small-Business Bourgeoisie. In v-Meme land, the Professionals are busy having their brains programmed by Authority-driven and Legalistic hierarchies. There is a big helping of now-mandatory culture code being served up simultaneously, some of it good, and absolutely some of it for sure overdue. But just like old tribes used to reserve special houses for their most ferocious warriors — a mixture of trauma survivors, as well as the empathy-disordered — we now have a media army reserved for Cancel Culture. You want to protest, or not go along with the latest edict? You deserve to lose your job. And since these definitions come from an elite handing them down, creating an authority, don’t expect much empathy if you want to discuss.

There’s no way that all cultural change can be pain-free, of course. But the problem with an overbearing culture is that when you destroy agency of actors in one venue that may need reform, don’t expect that to NOT happen where you might want creativity and new ideas. Fear spreads, and as I’ve said over and over, the brain trains itself with relational habits that swap in and out of situations. If group-think is overpowering in one circumstance, it will bleed into other endeavors.

And what of the Small-Business Bourgeoisie? They are busy being annihilated by the pandemic. No small business can survive months of inactivity, and restaurants, which make up a hunk of this group, have high failure rates anyway. What’s fascinating from an empathetic perspective is that it is very difficult to be a small business without some level of Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme instinct in your make-up. You have customers, and you have to read them. And as much as those on the Left may hate to read this, they are likely more empathetically developed than the Professional class on the Left. Successful restaurants, or any small business, require more than a clientele. They require a Community, and that means individual attention to every regular that frequents a watering hole. Remember Cheers, where everyone knew your name? That kind of interaction benefits your brain. It’s what this blog is about.

Why does this matter? If we are to fix the larger problems in society, we are going to need multi-scale, complex solutions from all sorts of venues. And importantly, we’re going to need brains that can manage the notion of complexity — something the Megacorps institutions are not particularly interested in doing. Witness the ongoing Google debacle of the departure of world-famous AI ethicist Timnit Gebru. Still not completely clear what happened, but Gebru raised important points of understanding large language models that Google wanted to use, but didn’t like her take. So she got the axe. The large hierarchy Megacorps giveth (who could afford such a position in the first place?) and the Megacorps taketh away. And if there is a lawsuit, Google will be able to pay out (if they should) and then the curtain of silence will drop nonetheless. Don’t expect any larger lessons to bubble out.

It is easy to point fingers at the Small Business Bourgeoisie and tell them their various alignments with figures like Trump have done them no favors. But it’s also impossible to really know through reading media the actual extent of problems and retrograde opinions and their actual effect. Everything that happens passes through the media’s status-driven, limbic-fear features. Mistakes are forgiven for views that line up with the dominant zeitgeist. Not so much for those that don’t. Take, for instance, my own experience with racism in my youth. It was heavy with actual violence. I grew up in a racially segregated community on the Mason-Dixon line. But to fast-forward to today, which I have written about, racial discrimination only rears its ugly head as a secondary factor. And it has to be triggered by class and employment status. Anyone who has a job — or a good job — is alright. So what does that mean?

We finally end up in the groups in the Underclass. Where are they at? Well, basically screwed. As Lind discusses in his piece, they are only trotted out for political expediency, and points of morality. The opium epidemic still rages. Undocumented workers are isolated in jobs no one wants to do, like work in slaughterhouses in central Iowa. They are paid so poorly not just because of the cost, but because if they were paid well, they’d leave. Their v-Meme is raw Survival, and they are organized into bands. And as they become more geographically isolated, they shrink back into their own bubble of unrecognizability.

And those at the actual bottom are trapped in their own public/private hell. I was in Reno visiting my sons, only two months ago. I was riding off the hill on my son’s new bike, down a main thoroughfare into town along the railroad tracks, where a veritable hobo jungle had sprung up. A 14 year old girl, dirty and unkempt, was sitting on the curb, crying. I didn’t stop because I was afraid maybe the bike, or myself, might get grabbed. And I’m a guy with a permanent fire engine siren light wired to my head. It was only one mile away from where my own son lives in a modest two bedroom apartment with his brother. How are those children faring in the pandemic closures of schools? Does anyone really think they’re following along lesson plans on iPads? The mind reels.

It’s hard to know how to close off a piece like this — and in the end, I’ll make a plea for more empathetic evolution. We can’t get there from here. Take Lind’s model and think about it today. Solutions are indeed going to come from all of us.

And for chrissakes, stop demonizing the other side. We all know where that could end. Let’s not turn theatre into life.

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