This diary is not about Congress, or the shutdown, or about politicians much at all. Rather, this is about the American people... the ones who, after all, sent a bunch of loons to Congress and put our country in this position in the first place.
We have parsed and puzzled for years about what possesses basically decent, goodhearted people to make decisions that promise to have very indecent, mean-spirited effects.
We have asked what's the matter with Kansas, we have discovered a genetic basis for political thought, we have found that partisanship wrecks at least our math ability, and at most our entire non-lizard brain. We have uncovered more depressing truths about our brains and our less-than-rational natures than Boehner has had drinks.
I was inspired to write my own take on the political brain after reading 10 Health Habits They Didn't Teach Me In Medical School, which first came out a few months ago.
I believe this article is important to understanding why right-wing ideas remain an ongoing presence in Americans' psyches. The short answer: happiness, which is more and more becoming synonymous with good health.
The long answer is after the twisted sunny-side up...
As I read "10 Habits", I felt a familiar sensation. Not quite my blood boiling... more like a high simmer of indignation. Because I had read that same article, in various forms, many times before.
That easy-breezy, yet authoritative tone. That same confident sales pitch, that same lack of understanding of how average Americans are supposed to put its suggestions into practice.
Yet another "happy people are healthier" editorial.
But why would I have a problem with people wanting to be happier?
Because of that nice, authoritative tone. That one that says for our health's sake, we must do whatever it takes to be happy. That if we're not pulling out all the stops, we are neglecting our health.
And it's that "whatever it takes" that the right wing in America has cleverly homed in on. Right-wingers' appeal to low-information voters is NOT all fear and vinegar; there's a lot more honey in it than we think.
It's about the joy of being part of a family and a community; of love and belonging; of standing for something greater than ourselves; of feeling pride in one's work. It's about a little bit of ego-stroke, too; not just appeals to our patriotism, but our general feeling of specialness.
Right-wingers have taken a good look at the image of a happy person we hold within ourselves. They have a keen sense of what a happy person looks and feels like. And they promise, every day, a fast-track to that salubrious state of mind... if only, of course, we adopt their values.
In short: they use our very pursuit of happiness against us.
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One of the political questions I most ask myself is why everyday people end up going along with, or even supporting, right-wing ideas. Can't they see how short-sighted and mean-spirited those ideas are?! we lament. How can they believe anything the Republicans come up with is beneficial for them, indeed will do anything but hurt them-- particularly if they are poor?
Do they lack the ability to watch a person's actions, to see if they match up with the pretty words? Do they even care about actions; do they just want to be soothed by pretty words and be done with it? Are they just mean and selfish deep down, and really only have room in their hearts for people they share blood and/or skin color with?
Or is it something else? Has the right wing been even better than we realize at convincing us that conservative values are good for us?
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But in one of the few points Dr. Phil gets right, people do what works for them. People continue to do things that make sense, feel right, make them happy. There must be something deeply comforting about right-wing values; otherwise they, despite our overall leftward drift, wouldn't be so persistent.
This study, which says that the happiest Americans are the Tea Partiers, and that religious extremists are happier than moderates, sums up the problem nicely. Because of course Americans are going to want to be like "the happiest people"!
Decades of messages from the media, the scientific community, and our own social circles have, in effect, written Americans a prescription for happiness. And that prescription leaves us vulnerable to buying into right-wing ideas.
Particularly now. Because while American society has long put a premium on happiness, only in recent years has the idea that happiness is vital for your physical health been so widespread. Any authoritative-sounding, halfway-qualified person promising we'll be happy-- and therefore healthy-- if we do X, Y, or Z? We will lap it up. Our health care system is shaky-- especially the redder your state is. Obamacare hasn't fully kicked in, and we're a long way from single payer; if that's in our future at all. So, apart from it being plain old common sense, we feel we must take whatever control of our health we can.
The appeal of the conservative movement is not just about economics and taxes. And it's not just about fear. No message is that long-lasting unless it also promises something positive.
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More than that, Dr. Rankin presents herself as committed to women's empowerment, with a strong narrative of independence from a patriarchal medical system and a calling to help women find their inner strength. An OB-GYN, a field populated by way too many misogynistic males; she promotes female friendship as an instrument of healing as powerful as any medicine. And she's technologically savvy and up-to-date, too.
Sounds like a feminist's dream doctor, right? It actually does. So what's not to like? Hardly anything at all. She even avoids the anti-vax curse! That made my science- and evidence-loving heart smile. This is one smart lady and doctor.
Hardly anything at all, I should say... except for the enormous potential for these ideas to be exploited by authoritarians. Right-wing authoritarians with smiley faces and soothing words.
Because despite the violence in our culture, despite a growing sense of general meanness, America is still a mostly peaceful, civilized nation. Most people have not developed a taste for Tea Party vitriol. The far right has to appeal to our love for freedom in order to get a hold on us. You really do have to use a friendly approach in order to win us over.
Because of this, almost all aggression we will experience in our lives is subtle. From "microaggressions" to emotional manipulation among friends to the Southerners' signature "Bless Your Heart"... most interpersonal aggression has such a light touch nowadays, we often don't even recognize it as aggression. At least until later.
So it is with appeals to our need for happiness.
I've always thought it convenient, for instance, how often churchgoing and marriage come up as strongly linked to happiness. Too many sources in happiness research lack specificity-- what kind of marriage? Traditional marriage, egalitarian marriage? How do you make sure the happiness benefits of religious participation outweigh the drawbacks-- particularly if your church is fundamentalist?
Also, many of these ideas are largely to utterly unfeasible for most Americans-- cash-strapped, stressed, and time-poor-- to actually put into practice. In order for this list to be a good guide, we have to overhaul our institutions; not just our individual attitudes. To remake our lifestyle on a country-wide scale, from our work vacation policies to our city infrastructure.
Telling people they should do something, on pain of ill health; without a viable plan to make it work in real life is at best short-sighted and at worst cruel. Yet another way of wagging our fingers at people for not exercising "personal responsibility" and implying we have 100% control over our health circumstances, and that we're failures as human beings if we get sick.
I don't think Dr. Rankin intends to convey such messages-- and indeed, her website and other materials have plenty of that welcome specificity I refer to. Better make sure that your couple relationship actually makes you happy, for instance; and it's most welcome news that she doesn't blindly suggest cutting back on work and ambition as the best way to restore "balance" to your life.
But I've seen these messages enough from the health community-- including the purportedly left-wing alternative medicine community-- that my mouth goes sour at even the hint of them.
I will explore "10 Health Habits" in greater detail below; and discuss how the right wing uses our need for happiness and good health to manipulate us.
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Habit 1: Alleviate Loneliness.While no one can argue with the mood-boosting effect of regular celebrations, we have to ask ourselves what creating a tight-knit community entails.
The Italian immigrants of Roseto, Pennsylvania had half the risk of heart disease as the rest of the country. Why? Researchers concluded that it was because they lived communally, celebrated regularly, and had a huge network of friends.
Too often, that means forming cliques of other people like us.
There is a wealth of research attesting to our preference that our closest friends resemble us-- in attitude, outlook, values, political philosophy, socioeconomic level... and yes, unfortunately, skin color. What do you think white flight is all about?
Plus, think of the vocabulary we use to describe our relationship to someone we really like and get along with-- that we "relate" to them. In other words, that we resemble each other enough that we could be part of the same family.
We have a visceral liking for social homogeneity, and the right wing knows it.
The right wing also knows that happiness is very much tied in with feeling comfortable... especially for more privileged classes in America. This informal survey of OKCupid demographics showed an unmistakable preference on the part of white women for self-involvement, calmness, affluence and domesticity (proxies for comfort and security) compared to women of color. (Or, at least, it is what straight white women feel they must present in order to be successful romantically with straight white men-- also known as America's most fortunate demographic; suggesting the need for comfort is more on the men's part than the women's.)
Moreover, and unfortunately for liberals, the scientific community is increasingly getting on the "do whatever makes you comfortable" bandwagon, especially in the field of neuroscience.
Neuroscience is brimming with ideas, because the field as a whole is just getting started. Unfortunately, some of its most popular messages have been its most specious-- such as from evolutionary psychologists and those who misconstrue the mind-body connection.
One of neuroscience's most prominent roles has been extolling the virtues of gut instinct. Specifically, the message that gut instinct is a better form of decision making than rational thought-- more accurate, more authentic, more reliable. This message is always delivered with a tone of certainty and confidence-- the better, I guess, to signal to our instincts that this person knows what they're talking about.
We all are familiar with Bush Junior's "go with your gut" ethos; but a lot of Americans engage in that method of making decisions. This couldn't help but increase their liking of him, and his "have a beer with" factor. Preferring instinct over thought is found across the political spectrum; and notable liberals such as Oprah were, if anything, there first.
More sinisterly, we are all familiar with The Secret's advice to purge anyone too "negative" from our lives-- which, in practice, often means someone who disagrees with us too much, or thinks our values may be leading us astray.
This is all done, of course, on the pretext of improving our emotional health.
The mainstream media reminds us, frequently, that we are social animals, that we always do better in couples or teams than alone. That oxytocin, which is secreted in response to warm, loving kindness and belonging, is one of the best boosts to our health imaginable.
Liberals consider solidarity one of the most powerful forces in the world-- but so do, in their own way, right-wingers. They're making a lot of friends out there in their megachurches, exurban communities, Republican campaigns and Tea Party groups.
Now, we know that they take camaraderie and ruin it. They turn it into an instrument of hate and exclusion, a sad caricature of itself-- you can be a part of our community IF you pay the price of admission, IF you subscribe to our values, go to our church, hate the same people we hate. Oxytocin and its health benefits, sorry to say, are mostly for the in-crowd; it actually decreases empathy for outsiders.
But does the average non-political American care that they're ruining solidarity? More than likely not. All they see is a group of people working together, living according to their values, living with purpose. And, I might add, having a damn good time at it despite all the anger and hate.
Tea Partiers and other right-wing fellow travelers get friends, a purpose, and connection to something larger than themselves-- three vital ingredients for happiness. Of course they're not going to step outside, look at the big picture, and watch out for any unintended consequences. They're happy and they're working according to their values; so psychologically speaking, they're covered.
It's harder to be a liberal than a conservative. It takes more emotional work to reach out to people unlike ourselves. It swims against the current of human nature. It increases our stress, at least a little bit. Thinking takes more energy than falling into instinct... and it may not always make us feel good.
Habit 2: Couple Up.Oh, boy.
A UCLA study reviewed census data and found that those who never marry are 58% more likely to die at a young age than those who exchange vows.
No pressure there, eh?
This story line started coming out in the mid-90s, starting in earnest with The Case For Marriage, written by Linda Waite and our good friend Maggie Gallagher.
We all know what kind of close-knit circle Gallagher hails from. A community with a staunch sense of purpose indeed: to take rights away from LGBT people. (Happily, Linda Waite appears to have evolved.)
Why do so many women feel like they must be in a relationship? Even in 2013?
I blame the medical and psychological media, saying, in so many ways, that we DO have to be in a relationship. That for our emotional-- and by extension our physical-- health, it's better if we're in a relationship.
I think again of average Americans-- those who don't care much about politics, or are too busy to get involved, and therefore are most likely to get their information from the MSM. Because while they may not trust the media about politics, they ARE likely to trust the media about health:
[H]ealth communication research demonstrates that mass media may be even more important than interpersonal communication in increasing awareness and knowledge of health issues.-- from Mayo Clinic ProceedingsWomen are not going to listen to the old lines about "you're more likely to be struck by lightning than get married after your late 30's" anymore. We're too smart and worldly for that, and have been for years.
But if you frame it, for both men and women, as a question of our health... if you play up the "humans are social animals" angle, if you point to the oxytocin and the norepinephrine and all the other beneficial hormones that are secreted when we're happy; if you throw just enough science and fact into the mix... then, we start paying attention. Then, the average, non-political voter will start listening. And thanks to the neuroscience involved, you'll get a lot of liberals listening too.
One of my biggest fears when all the "married people are healthier" stories first came out, was that it would become more acceptable to stay in abusive relationships. Thankfully, more media have since amended that statement, saying that only when the relationship is good, does the couple attain those health benefits; that being in a bad relationship is worse than in no relationship at all. (thank you, even eHarmony, for seeing the light).
But still: I believe that the message of "coupled people are healthier than singles" has scared more than a few Americans into starting, or staying in, relationships that hold them down more than build them up. Just as with a social group, there are a lot of unspoken requirements to keep a life partner loving us. If our life partner happens to be conservative-- of course we've going to, over time, become a little more conservative. Our partner's rapport with us-- and by extension, their love for us-- demands that we, in some way, make ourselves similar to them.
And remember that OKCupid survey; sadly, too many men still find traditional gender roles attractive. Therefore, making it a social requirement-- or at the very least, a strong encouragement-- for straight women to at least give the appearance of protecting the status quo, if they want to be successful in love.
Love is not the answer, if the price of love is propping up harmful norms.
Habit 3: Get It On.What do the first three items on this list have in common? They all require cooperation from someone else for you to attain them.
Those with healthy, happy sex lives live longer, have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, get less breast cancer, bolster their immune systems, sleep better, appear more youthful, enjoy improved fitness, have enhanced fertility, get relief from chronic pain, experience fewer migraines, suffer from less depression, and enjoy an improved quality of life.
All three of these items-- close community, marriage, and sex-- require mutual, enthusiastic consent between you and another human being. No consent? Consent is unilaterally withheld, by you or the other person? No health benefits for you!
Just as with happiness itself, the "people who have more sex are healthier" message has only come about recently. And when that's the message your audience hears, it may not be so surprising if they have problems with consent. Because, in this frame, the person saying no to sex or a relationship with them is not just frustrating them romantically. They're denying them a chance at optimal health.
You can't force enthusiastic consent. Like a good relationship in general, it must be grown organically. But for many of us, that's more surrendering control to serendipity than we are willing to deal with. Someone else's unilateral decision can shatter our long, careful romantic and sexual plans in the blink of an eye. And to respect the other person, we have to let them do it.
When you're hearing a veritable Greek chorus of voices saying that your health just won't be as good unless you get it on more... you're going to be less than pleased about the process of building trust and rapport with another person. You're going to lose patience; you're going to want to make it happen now, for you want to improve your health now. You're going to start wanting to force the issue.
Now, one group of people has no problem with just jumping in and taking sex. Right-wingers are pro-rape; this is almost a given. But rape culture is everywhere, regardless of where we land on the political spectrum.
The medical and psych media absolutely do not help with their uncritical and context-free message of more sex = better health. They disregard the process of relationship building, and assume enthusiastic consent doesn't have to be consciously created. They pit your health against someone else's bodily rights-- one of the cruelest false choices you can come up with in sexual politics. They present waiting, working, and negotiating for consent as secondary to the goal of getting more sex.
I bet rapists everywhere heave a sigh of relief inside at all of that... they're healthier than those fools who actually think consent is important, and let it get in the way of that all-important health and mood booster.
And what if you're unlucky at sex, and you're not into rape? Well, there's always raging hatred: those judgy women, in addition to denying you sexual and romantic success with those "no's" of theirs, are actively making you sicker.
Hatred for a person who won't have sex with you is given that extra kick when you throw concerns about your health into the mix. Or, on the other end of it, deep self-loathing at not being a person who can effortlessly inspire enthusiastic consent. For something that's supposed to be good for you, that strikes me as incredibly unhealthy.
Bottom line: Dear media, please stop saying anything is important to our health that by definition is out of our control. You will cause us to hate and resent ourselves, and anyone we see as withholding it from us.
Habit 4: Engage in Work You Love.Oh, if only that were true in America today. An ideal that would really make America, America.
Those stuck in soul-sucking jobs are at greater risk for sudden death. ... Studies suggest Americans are at even greater risk of sudden death from heart disease and stroke due to overwork. If work is stressing you out, you may be shortening your life. However, when you’ve found your calling and are doing what you love, your nervous system relaxes, and this flips on your body’s natural self-healing mechanisms.
But how do we actually put that into practice, in a so-called "free-market" society seemingly dedicated to squeezing every last drop of creativity out of us, in the name of profits?
Not to mention, in a job market awash in jobs that either require a lot of manufactured friendliness, standing still doing nothing, or selling customers things they neither want nor need?
That too often is what happens when you let the "free market" rule everything-- the "marketable" squeeze out the "unmarketable". The qualities you need to become successful become increasingly narrowed and homogenized. Your possible life paths become limited.
Because "marketable" really means, the 1 percent likes you and wants to "buy" you; so your job is to make yourself salable to a fickle customer base of rich people, 24/7/365. And so we stretch ourselves to fit into what they like... not what we, or the middle class, likes. And forget about trifles like personal authenticity and empathy. Every job in America is a sales job; and those pesky things will screw up the sales pitch.
The time and energy that perpetual self-marketing and "building our brand" demands of us brings a drudgery to any job, and undercuts our desires to be more egalitarian and open-hearted. Because as far as many advertisers are concerned, there is ONE true way to relate to customers, and therefore be profitable. And it's by being as nonthreatening to the privileged classes as possible. Young, beautiful, wealthy white boys and girls whose smiles never fade and never think anything needs to change.
Market-values types should think about this every time they spout off about the market always being freer than the government. Through this twisted form of natural selection, the market can actually be more oppressive than any government.
Habit 5: Take Vacations.How many people in America take vacations? How long are those vacations when we do take them?
Not only are vacations fun –- they’re good for your health! Failure to use accrued vacation time has been associated with early death. ... [ T ]hose who failed to take annual vacations had a 21% higher risk of death from all causes, and they were 32% more likely to die of a heart attack. ... [ W ] omen who vacationed once every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack than women who vacationed twice a year.
And how many of us really feel free to take vacations in this at-will work environment?
This is a culture where one third of American workers lack sufficient sleep. Where skimping on sleep is considered a point of pride in some workplaces, a marker of one's productivity. Where more and more professionals wonder if they will be disadvantaged for not taking Adderall, Provigil, and other drugs that-- what else?-- reduce the need for sleep.
If we think sleep is a luxury, you know what our take on vacation is.
Any way you slice it, vacation is increasingly for wealthy folks. Nice to see that the health enhancements of vacation are also for the rich. Just one more factor in the longer life spans of upper-income people.
Once again, saying "just take more vacations!" without sweeping changes to our work culture and corporate priorities; saying it in a way that makes Americans feel personally responsible for attaining this health enhancement; is myopic and cruel.
Habit 6: Express Your Creativity.Wholeheartedly agree. Something we need more desperately than ever. But once again, how do we put that into practice?
Health benefits of creative expression include improved sleep, better overall health, fewer doctor’s visits, diminished use of medication, and fewer vision problems. Creative expression also decreases symptoms of distress and improves quality of life for women with cancer, strengthens positive feelings, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, reduces anxiety, and improves social functioning and self-esteem.
How many teachers, for an obvious example, feel secure that they will still have jobs if they dare to "express their creativity"? How many "creative professions" involve merely carrying out, in cookbook fashion, an employer's vision?
If HR is hiring for fit-- unless they are a company such as Google or 3M that make a point of hiring people who innovate-- creativity is NOT likely to be high on their list of desired candidate attributes. Too many organizations still believe creativity translates to a lack of leadership ability.
Even worse is the attempt to turn creativity itself into labor, and leisure time itself into yet another job requirement. As seems to be the case with Facebook, where part of your job is apparently looking camera-ready at all times, so that you may update your personal page regularly so as to sell the Facebook lifestyle. Remember, only "marketable" forms of creativity need apply.
Any company in the business of selling lifestyles, come to think of it, is the most notorious for prying into your personal life and co-opting your pastimes into yet another item you must tick off the employability checklist.
And of course, emotional labor has long been a feature of the service economy, which takes up an increasing share of our GDP year after year. Not much room for innovation when emotions themselves must be standardized.
If being more creative is going to bring us into conflict with our bosses or clients, we're going to choose blandness. If we see creative types struggling in life, having less money and success, punished by society for not catering to the needs of the 1 percent-- we're not going to emulate them. We want to be happy and provide for our families, after all.
Habit 7: Attend Religious Services.This is probably the biggest reason fundies have that perpetual look of smug confidence.
Individuals who attend religious services regularly live seven and a half years longer (almost 14 years longer for African-Americans) than those who never or rarely attend religious gatherings. One study found that high levels of religious involvement were associated with lower rates of circulatory diseases, digestive diseases, respiratory diseases, and just about every other disease studied.
Because, dammit, they're just healthier. All the official sources say so!
Literally, nearly all official sources for health news vouch for the healing power of religion. And not just conservative sources, either:
How Religion Could Lower Health Costs in America, Gallup's Business Journal
Why Going To Church Is Good For You, the New York Times
"People who left a strict religious group were less likely to report being in good health", Livescience.com
Why Religion Is Linked With Better Health and Well-Being, Huffington Post
"Some societies may benefit from religious insularity — it is, they say, a way to avoid disease", Nature magazine (actually a critical article, but one that sharply illuminates religion's perceived benefits)
Religious services also provide side benefits touched on earlier, especially social support and sense of purpose.
As with the other happiness inducers on this list, the problem with religion is implementation more than concept. When it is used as a means for a powerful, privileged person or group to impose themselves on a less powerful person or group; religion can cause untoward emotional damage. Because it's being used ostensibly for the goal of better happiness, it reaches into deep, personal areas of our psychology; and it's a vision of emotional health that is being turned into a weapon. Like saying "I love you" in the most hateful way imaginable.
As in, most notoriously, when military psychologists require recruits to be assessed for spiritual fitness, and pronounce them emotionally "at risk" or "less resilient" if they score too low. No doubt if you asked these psychologists, they would say they're operating from sound science; via the teachings of Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement. And naturally, from compassion and common sense. Doesn't everybody know that belief is good for your health?
Or how about the numerous examples of spiritual abuse going on in our everyday lives, almost always done in the name of our health, happiness, and success as well as that of our loved ones... whether through Bill Gothard's education curriculum for our kids, or driving wedges between family members in the name of holiness, or ineffective methods of healing our sickness such as faith healing?
Seems like quite a price to pay for extra happiness, doesn't it?
Soraya Chemaly makes the case that women feel they have little choice but to embrace religion, especially when poor; because the church provides the pieces of social safety net missing from our government and our society. But, of course, it's at the cost of taking on a belief system that may not fit them. Not exactly enthusiasm for religion there.
Habit 8: Be Optimistic.
Optimistic people are healthier. Optimists fare better when suffering from cancer, recover better from coronary bypass surgery, enjoy healthier immune systems, and live longer than pessimists. People with a positive outlook are 45% less likely to die from any cause than negative thinkers (and 77% less likely to die from heart disease).
Habit 9: Get Happy.(Habit 10 was "meditate", which I have left off because it doesn't really support the rest of the diary.)
Happy people live up to ten years longer than those who are unhappy, depressed, or anxious. Depression increases your cancer risk, is a major risk factor for heart disease, and is linked to a variety of pain disorders, while chronic anxiety has been shown to increase cancer risk and carotid artery atherosclerosis, which predisposes to stroke.
I have combined these sections because for the purposes of this diary, they go together.
Be Optimistic. Get Happy. Just do it, and don't ask questions. Especially not about any side effects or unintended consequences. Do it for your health-- do whatever it takes.
Apparently-- judging by the people who are too often held up as examples-- even if it means trading in your ethics, your empathy, and your good sense.
If you're a happy selfish asshole, are you better off than an unhappy loving person of compassion? I wouldn't blame you for thinking so.
Scott Walker, to our chagrin, would probably score very high on a test of subjective well-being. Why? Because of his unshakable confidence that everything he does is right. Ditto for Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Dubya Bush, and almost every other right-winger we love to hate. They all possess that same certitude, that unwarranted self-confidence. What does it matter if it hurts other people, or hurts the country? They feel happy.
They've also ticked a lot of boxes off on this list: relationships, community, religion. The wealth to take vacations; and exercise more creativity in their jobs than the average industrial or service worker. As far as the pop health and psych community are concerned, that's all that matters.
Who wouldn't, without our level of political information, look at these people and decide that the way to the good life is to be just like them?
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How do we fight a toxic right-wing ideology that-- let's be blunt here-- makes some of us feel good?
How do you fight social norms that, in effect, say that if we want to make a decent living, if we want to attract a romantic partner, if we want to have friends, if we want those support systems and communities so vital to our health... that we'd better protect the privileged?
That our best likelihood of happiness comes when we make quick, instinctual, prejudicial decisions? That's our default mode, and we do not need further encouragement to stay there.
All I know is, this is all agonizing for a liberal... but it's probably peachy-keen to the various authoritarians in our midst. No wonder they're happier-- they don't have to choose between having friends and being their best selves.
But their best selves and their happiness are tearing apart our common good. They are getting happy at the expense of all of us. How do we stop this-- particularly when trying to convince someone who benefits from the status quo to change, is about as easy as trying to stop a locomotive with your bare hands?
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We can start by not falling into the same trap.
We will need, quite simply, to present a better alternative than the right-wingers have. To outdo them on both the happiness front, and the social support front.
The first step is asking ourselves, where do our happiness and optimism come from.
We are not accustomed to thinking this way, and for good reason: it forces us to think about happiness in an uncomfortable way. Are we happy because we choose not to care about the less fortunate, a tactic that's probably a favorite of right-wingers? (That does seem to take a significant source of misery off the table.)
Are we optimistic because we prefer simple explanations of life rather than embracing complexity... as fundamentalists prefer?
Are we serene because we associate only or primarily with people like ourselves, so our worldview is always affirmed?
Remember, all these mechanisms are tacitly supported by those in the medical and psych communities. Despite the clear preferences for following the specific steps above, their tendency is to not care how you get happy; just that you get happy... with little thought, if any, to unintended consequences. Sources critical about the methods outlined above are growing; but they're vastly outnumbered.
So yes: I say, uncomfortable as it is, that we must take this step of examining how we get happy. We do what almost no one else in our society does-- check our mood boosters for unintended effects on other people, and change them to benefit others as best we can. (And no, not just those others within our own social circles.)
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Which brings us to the next step: check our bias. Since the medical, psychological, economic, political, and media authorities won't do it for us-- indeed, will all too cheerfully benefit from stoking our biases-- we need to do it ourselves. Examine ourselves for signs of bias; and we ALL have them; because following our bias is one of those habits that makes us happy.
Think in terms of more possible ways to live, more possible ways to happiness. This is crucial for dealing with the inevitable pain that comes with taking a hard look at the effects of our actions. Facing the disparity between our intention and our impact cancan hurt badly. It can cripple us with anxiety and self-consciousness; remember that the implied message of the proverb "think twice" is "don't do it". Enough of these messages-- and ALL our actions have effects we fail to anticipate-- and we start to wonder, exactly, if there's anything at all we CAN do.
When it comes right down to it, most Americans are lousy at using the pain of interdependence for our benefit. Our defensiveness at our intent kicks in, and we feel like we have to make a black-or-white choice... to give up everything and let the other person have their way, or to force our way to prevail. The best option for both, obviously, would be for both of us to get some of our way-- and that can only be done through negotiation. We can't negotiate if we're reeling from the shame of "effect shock".
How to break through that shame? I'm still figuring out how myself. But this article provides some of the best answers I have ever seen on this subject. Read carefully the part about realizing there is a difference between asking someone for permission and considering our effect on them... we tend to think the two are synonymous; therefore we think that we lose a lot of autonomy and personal power by putting ourselves in someone else's shoes.
Caring for others is not supposed to make us miserable. But that is often the effect of a certain taboo in empathy-- the anti-asking taboo. In one of the most cognitively dissonant concepts in existence, a lot of us are taught that "true" empathy requires you NOT ask how another person is feeling. That empathy only counts when you correctly guess the feelings of others without asking. And so images fill our heads of those insufferable folk who insist they know your feelings and thoughts better than you yourself.
How much harm have we accidentally caused others, when our intentions were to help?
The Tea Party insists they are "saving" the country, after all.
Always give people the chance to tell their own story in their own words, and respect their right to not do so at a given time. Ask. This does not cheapen empathy, or make it "not count"... indeed, it's the only way to get accurate information, so that you don't take erroneous action. Remember Margaret Vojtko-- how much easier her life would have been if those around her had taken the time to talk to her, and ask her what she really needed; instead of calling Adult Protective Services and thinking they "did everything they could to help her"... when in reality that action actually turned her life upside down, and may have hastened her death.
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Speaking of interdependence and our effects not measuring up to our intentions... we need to do a better job of sticking together. We're there in terms of things like crowdfunding to help fellow Kossacks out, and putting pressure on elected officials to reconsider the effects of their ideas. But can we step it up even further?
For all our talk of community, we sure are not as effective at it as we should be. If we are to present a more attractive alternative to conservatism, one of the best things we can do is promote the message that hey, living like a liberal works better than living like a conservative.
Too many Americans see righties living better than lefties.
Conservatives may promote a Randian philosophy, every one for themselves-- but watch what they do: they always come through for each other. Their mutual social support is impressive. It's as if they have an extra safety net the rest of us do not have.
That's probably the biggest reason IOKIYAR exists: we abandon our transgressing politicians while they embrace them. Average people are going to look at that, and think "Hey, I'd better be a conservative because they suffer fewer consequences in life than liberals". Never underestimate the power of example.
And no, sticking by our transgressing Dems does not mean surrendering our standards. Tom DeLay may have gotten his conviction overturned through the power of friends in the right places. That's not the way we want to stick together.
Anthony Weiner should probably never run for elected office again, and he deserves not to. But that doesn't mean we should just throw him away. On the contrary: what about all those plans of his to investigate Clarence and Ginni Thomas? If he's got a good case against them, I don't think we'd let his past behavior color that as much as he might think. And hey, we can always use more muckraking leftie talk show hosts. If Joe Walsh can make a go of it, why not Weiner?
Ditto for John Edwards-- elected office will never again be in the cards for him, but he'd kick ass at the Southern Poverty Law Center, because he was a great lawyer. And if he's not at least quietly supporting the Moral Monday movement, then he's missing out on his biggest chance at redeeming himself right now.
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This is huge when it comes to jobs. A major reason Americans don't get more politically involved is fear of job loss... which, in the age of the Internet, can easily blow up into long-term damage to our reputation and hiring prospects. The real danger to us from the NSA is not that we will be droned in our own backyard; but that the personal information gleaned by them will be viewed and shared by every employer we meet, threatening to a send us into a Tartarus of permanent unemployability. But thanks to the Republicans' extra safety net, they're affected a little less "permanently" than the average person would be.
Don't think average Americans don't notice that right-wingers appear to have much longer careers and better job security! How long has Donald Rumsfeld's career been, screw-up that he is? How long has Newt Gingrich's been? Hell, how about Ed Meese's? Longer than those of many much, much more deserving people.
Why? Because they have a lot of friends in the conservative movement willing to give them references and new chances. The wingnut welfare circuit is probably the most effective jobs program in the country. Too bad it's closed off to all but a select group of people.
Hell, how about a less political example... Pax Dickinson? Within mere hours of his ugly, public firing from Business Insider, he was back on his feet with barely a scratch. And note that his bosses at BI put up with his offensive tweets for two years. Most people who get "social media fired" get barely two hours, never mind two years.
Why did they stick with him? Did he have great technical skills? Did his bosses personally like him? Is he a good chameleon, knowing how to be agreeable in the workplace and only letting his douche flag fly on his personal Twitter account?
Could be all of the above. Could be none of the above. Does it matter?
What really matters is that his support system allowed him to keep a job despite being personally flawed, and displaying those personal flaws quite blatantly on social media. It probably makes a big difference that Dickinson is a privilege protector. It does seem as if those who protect or support the status quo have an easier time with jobs, friends and life than those challenging it.
Our own dedication to feeling comfortable at all costs keeps that dynamic in place. Why? Because what is against us is a community of like minded people, committed to working as a team to limit our freedom and our progress as a society. Liberals are NOT the only ones benefitting from teamwork.
A committed group of people can only be beaten by another committed group of people, if the goal is long-lasting social change. And that's exactly what the conservative movement has done, for the last 40 years... worked as a team to get their agenda not only practiced as law, but embraced deep in many American hearts and minds.
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No one is going to fight the system if they feel all alone. Or worse-- if their would-be social support system actively discourages efforts to make a change. Often the biggest sappers of activist morale are our own family and friends... and they will invariably cite stress and unhappiness as reasons not to get involved.
To that I say: tell them that it's time to challenge some deeply-felt messages. For instance, that stress is always bad. The right kind of stress can, in fact, be good; if it energizes you and spurs you to action. Be suspicious of any stress-reduction technique whose primary effect (again, not intent) appears to be distracting or sidelining you. If we are to engage in self-care, we must stay in the game while we do.
Believe it or not, the Tea Party illustrates this very well. I would say one of the biggest allures of the Tea Party, in fact, is their great show of self-efficacy. Americans dream of meaningful lives; as active citizens in their communities, working hard at something they love and believe in. Our reality, of course, is light-years away. Americans feel paralyzed, discouraged from taking any truly substantive action to improve their communities or better their own lives.
The Tea Party, out of all others, appears to have broken out of that paralysis. Note the operative word, "appears"-- but given enough frustration, and we're not going to know-- or care-- whether it's an illusion. After a long enough time of feeling paralyzed and muzzled, we are going to increasingly not care about things like side effects, unintended consequences, or far-off repercussions of our actions. We are going to demand the ability, the personal power, the social license to operate to take real, concrete, life-bolstering action. We are starving for it, and we're not really going to think about the aftertaste of shit... the sweet relief of living will outweigh everything else.
And we will copycat anyone who we see as getting a piece of that.
It's time that someone worthier than the Tea Party steps up and becomes this example to follow. It might as well be us.
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It's sad indeed when our most visible examples of joie de vivre are bigots, fundamentalists and authoritarians.
It's time for liberals to beat them on this front... because in our hearts, we have them beat hands down on sheer appreciation of life.
For the real irony in the conservative take on happiness is, it's a watered-down version of happiness. In fact, it's an inverted form of Calvinist pessimism. You can attain happiness, but only if you constantly "work on yourself". Or purchase it, or pray for it, etc. It's happiness in the way free will is to a fundamentalist: a Hobson's choice, where you're "free" to choose God or not choose God. "You can choose to take the garbage out, Timmy; or you can choose to have your bottom smacked"...
Wouldn't we all be better off seeing happiness as a public good? When it doesn't become yet another transaction, yet another bauble we much purchase, yet another treadmill we must race on? Wouldn't we all be better off dropping out of the Emotional Health Contest and Death Match™?
Happiness was never meant to be turned into a competition. Same for emotional health, social support... and physical health. (Unless it's the President's Physical Fitness Awards.) That attitude to happiness is itself an artifact of right-wing thinking, just like the idea that good emotions must be earned, purchased, or gifted to you from God; and are therefore a mark of your character if you display them.
Rather than what they truly are... free to all of us to enjoy and better our lives.
Yes, I say this after an entire diary of saying the liberal approach to happiness is better than the conservative approach.
But that's mainly because liberal values can be universalized, much more than conservative ones. And therefore, they are more inclusive, open-hearted and ultimately more in line with human rhythms.
Goldstein's argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:We'll be more likely to find real, lasting, substantial happiness by emulating Ricardo Sanchez than Joel Osteen. Meaningful work that engages your brain and allows you to be a success no matter your background, beats the Prosperity Gospel any day.
(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;
and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)
In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.
And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.
-- from Greta Christina, "Why Liberal Values Really Are Better"
Social support with no contingencies, save that you be a decent person; beats social support with a hidden cost of coercion and cognitive dissonance any day.
Creativity that freely flows from you, beats forced creativity for marketing purposes any day.
Consent beats sexual assault every day.
Freedom to be unhappy beats a forced drumbeat of happiness every day, any day, all the time.
Isn't it ironic that trying to force happiness results in more unhappiness?
How about re-writing Dr. Rankin's article... maybe we should call it, "10 Habits For A Smarter, Kinder, Fairer Way To Happiness?"