American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the divisions of our country. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how divided our country has become? Is it really more divided than ever? I think the internet would tell us that it is. And I think if you look at the right (wrong?) measures you might rightly conclude that it is, but I’m still not sure. My interest in essence of those divisions was piqued when I happened on a podcast about American Exceptionalism. The guest, Mugambi Jouet of Stanford University, pointed out that many people (most notably large numbers of the republican party) are confused by the phrase’s use of the word exceptional. He has written a book about it: Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other (University of California Press).

By the way, it’s not only the clueless-right that miss the true meaning of the phrase. This afternoon on The Daily I heard New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman use the phrase incorrectly while talking about Donald Trump’s stated willingness talk to strongmen like Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Haberman said, “The United States has long been an idealistic nation; it’s essentially this concept of American Exceptionalism. While it’s been pretty maligned, it’s basically about something being aspirational and the idea of values of freedom of constitutional democracy, and that those are the types of values that this country hopes other countries will aspire to.”

Uh, no, that is not what American Exceptionalism is about.

As I said it’s clear that the phrase can and will continue to cause confusion for people of all political walks of life. The word exceptional is typically used as a synonym for outstanding. But, when Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase he used it to identify this country as an exception to other western countries.

de Tocqueville found it exceptional that the very same country that had established so many colleges and universities in such a short time should have such an anti-intellectual propensity. All of the exceptions are interesting, but there’s one that I’m not sure de Tocqueville thought of:

The US is the first country to strive for a government of, for and by the people. Still, most people don’t trust the government. Moreover, I would hazard that the percentage of Americans who don’t trust the government is at an all-time high. If this is true, it could mean that people are more likely to trust a government like Vladimir Putin’s than a government like ours. Is this worrisome? Maybe.

Then again, perhaps there’s a special psychological justification for mistrusting a government of peers. Perhaps knowing with assurance that the people in government think and are motivated just the way we are is enough to give us pause. Also, could the fact that our government occasionally comes clean about its misdeeds lead some to a greater mistrust rather than confidence? We all witness the militarization of urban police forces but for some that makes it easy to harken back to the FBI sending helicopters and snipers after Randy Weaver and his family, killing his son and wife (by being shot in the back of the head) and so a correlation is solidified. Some see good (if fallible) government at work and others see an increasingly emboldened and heavy-handed state.

There’s another even simpler reason for why people find it easy to distrust the government of the United States. We’ve simply done more totally wild shit than any other country. Like what, you say? How about having a functional democracy predicated on a three hundred year old document? How about sending a man to the moon? How about driving countries like Japan and Germany to their knees only to help them become economic powers just a few decades after the end of WWII. Did I mention that we’ve dropped two nuclear bombs on populated cities?

That kind of tension, that cognitive dissonance, is largely OK. I tend to look at all evidence of the work of government as falling in one direction or the other. If a bit of work is apt to make a high percentage of people lose faith in the work of government (like the Fullerton Police’s killing of Kelly Thomas), I see it as bad. If a bit of work (like convicting ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of corruption) makes a high percentage of people gain faith in government, I’m all for it.

I realize that some folks grabbed the popcorn and were rooting for the Fullerton cops sitting on Kelly Thomas’ back while crushing the life out of him. I’m also aware that some folks thought kindly old Lee Baca must have been entrapped by the evildoers from the FBI. Again, that’s just cognitive dissonance playing out on a mass scale. Still, I stand by the work of government that increases faith in government and condemn the acts that undermine that faith.

What about proponents of  gun rights? The guest on the podcast stated that for many American gun owners the primary purpose of their guns was to protect against the government rather than against threats from other citizens. I actually had to play that part of the podcast a second time to make sure I heard him correctly; I had. Now I have to admit that the idea that you better have a 15-shot 9mm on hand because the government is going to come get you is a fairly astounding fear. But, I think fear is the key word. I think the average Trump voter was and is a pretty fearful person, one who felt as though he had been disadvantaged by pretty much everyone and had been rendered helpless by forces both seen and unseen. Not only did they feel disadvantaged by people but those who lived in rural parts of the country even felt disadvantaged by mere geography. It is easy to imagine a group of people who felt a kind of generalized fear of everything and everyone finding solace in guns, and lots of them.

Let’s think about the anti-intellectual leanings that got de Tocqueville’s attention. I think most anti-intellectual sentiment is pointed at groups of intellectuals who seemingly do no work. I think a classic moniker of the past is apt here; eggheads. These are the guys studying whatever it is you’ve never heard of or anything you don’t understand. Even the most anti-intellectual slack-jawed-yokel is inclined to see a doctor if he gets sick. He may attest to a distrust of the medical profession as a whole, maybe he thinks they’ve even secretly cured cancer, but old Cletus is still very likely to tell you that his own doctor is top-notch. That’s more of a selective anti-intellectual sentiment, one that readily finds an exception in specific people, rather than a blanket distrust of learning itself.

The internet, as always, stands ready to undermine confidence and create doubt, in those who believe differently than you do. And, this applies to both sides of a debate. The internet makes it all too easy to stay in our echo chambers and therefore encourage our divisions. But are we really all that divided? I don’t think so. The divisions we read and hear so much about divisions are largely overstated and driven by the media and the shortsightedness of both of our major political parties. Get actual people, rather than groups answering polls or being fed sound bytes or video clips, into a room and watch the divisions fade. Everyone wants to work, everyone wants to being able to afford health care and everyone wants to attain the educations they believe their chosen lifestyle demands. It’s OK to disagree about the processes and mechanism we use to achieve our goals. It’s not OK to use a politically motivated belief that the divisions are so profound that even dialogue is undesirable.

America is both an exception and exceptional and those very qualities give me the greatest hope for its future. Rather than fret over those exceptions we should celebrate them as badges of honor reflecting our diversity of thought and perspective.

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

Choosing to Live the Dream

I have a friend who likes to ask me what I would have liked to have done with my life. The unspoken assumption is pretty obvious; there’s no way I could be happy the way things turned out.

But the fact is I am with the way my life turned out.

My friend likes to wonder if I would have enjoyed being a full-time writer. I don’t believe I would have. I can’t imagine enjoying the grinding existence of the working writers I know. Life is more than writing for me. In fact, it’s hard for me to understand how many writers manage to squeeze in enough living to justify the amount of time and energy they devote to writing. Writing, for me anyway, is my response to some aspect of the life I’m living. Put another way, you can have a full life without writing but I don’t believe you can write anything worthwhile without living a full life.

There are other fundamental limiters to my writing and those are the honest and undeniable limits of my talent and inspiration. My inspirations simmer, they seldom boil. Also, I have many other pulls in my life and some of them also involve a kind of creativity and a smattering of inspiration. I love to golf and to hike and to take photographs. More than anything I enjoy being around the people whom I like and love. Writing much more than I already do would vacuum up precious time that could be spent actually doing other things and enjoying other people.

Today I bought new tires for my beloved Mini Cooper instead of buying a new car. I would like to be able to buy a house but the housing market rises faster than I can earn more money. I’ve been working to develop a business association with a high-end manufacturer in Sweden for the last five years. Would it have been easier to do if I had more cash on hand? Most certainly. Still, as has been better said by a million other writers before me the only thing I would truly like more of is time. In the end, it seems to me that we have a choice; we can either embrace life’s limitations or thrash against them.

By accepting those limitations, we allow ourselves to get started on some of the things we say matter to us. But, if we spend too much time thrashing about we’re likely to find our energy sapped before we even have a chance to bring our better selves to bear on projects that could be worthwhile.

Now that’s what I call wasted energy.

And so, I am truly living the dream. My health is good. My loved ones are many and nearby and the world is full of things that fascinate me. From time to times those fascinations inspire me to write. Living the dream is a choice I’m happy I made.

Choosing to Live the Dream

Maintaining optimism in times of change

That’s an odd title, of course, when you consider that change is the universal constant. At times it’s easy to think things have stayed the same for a while and then you get a glance at a few extra gray hairs here and there and you realize it’s been going on for a while without you noticing it.

As I mentioned in another post, my job of the last dozen years will come to an end at the end of July. Whether it was a great run or not, it has come to an end as do all things. This change has imposed itself on me in a very obvious way that cannot be ignored. I can miss a few new gray hairs for a while but I cannot miss the end of a longstanding position.

“That is no country for old men.” John Butler Yeats

That is the first line of Yeats’ poem, Sailing to Byzantium. I interpret the poem and that line differently than most. In it, I hear that the future does away with the aged; that country is the future. In Hamlet, Shakespeare called death the undiscovered country. Both writers sought to make the future a place as well as a time. In doing so they sought to make time into something less amorphous and more comprehensible.

As writers often do, they were trying to tell us something. For me, the lesson is that these times of obvious change are cosmic favors. It’s up to me to see it as such and to seize the opportunity. The angst of times like these is driven by uncertainty and the question of whether I am up to challenges the future has in store. So often, the changes brought by time happen when we’re unaware or distracted by other things. But, this change, by the sheer obviousness of it, is calling out to me to make it into a time of gain rather than loss.

I am looking forward to a very interesting fall and winter. Both should be seasons of great opportunity; the kinds of opportunities that only a big change can bring.

Maintaining optimism in times of change

The value of faking optimism

This article is pretty interesting. It’s one of the few I’ve read to focus on the idea that even if you don’t feel optimistic it’s beneficial to act optimistic. The article asks reader to channel their inner Tiggers rather than succumb to their usual trend toward their inner Eeyore.

Two of the more intriguing elements of the article are the ideas that the way people walk and the way they imagine themselves can be so important to a person’s sense of positive and negative outlooks. I usually prefer to walk quite quickly when my interest is getting from one place to another. When I notice my shadow I see a figure that’s canted forward slightly and moving briskly. It sometimes feels like a happy gait but more often it just feels purposeful.

Imagining myself is really tricky. After thinking about it for a time I realized that I usually imagined ideas, actions and things. I want to work on my book or practice my golf swing. The “I” in both of those sentences and thoughts feel a bit less significant than golf and writing. The article quotes Jeff Wise from Psychology Today:

He states, “People do transform their lives, every day. But for the most part they don’t do it by relying on willpower. The key, it turns out, is to simply start behaving like the person you want to become. Instead of wondering, What should I do?, imagine your future, better self and ask: What would they do? This approach works because of the rather surprising way that our brains form self-judgments. Numerous experiments have demonstrated that when it comes to forming beliefs about our own character and proclivities, we don’t peer inward, as you might expect; instead, we observe our own external behavior. If we see ourselves carrying out a particular action—whatever the actual motivation—our self-conception molds itself to explain that reality.”

I confess I find this to be a little tricky. It’s easy to imagine myself practicing golf but it’s harder to imagine myself as the better golfer that would result from lots of practice without putting in the practice first.

Rather than focusing on my future golf-self or my future writer-self I tend to focus on the next step. There’s an old saying that goes, “What’s the most important step on the journey to the of the mountain? The next one…” But, maybe the next step focus doesn’t do enough to develop optimism? Miguel Cervantes wrote, “Love not what you are, but what you may become.” It may be that you have to envision your future and better self first and then imagine what that future self would do. That seems like a more inspiring approach…

The value of faking optimism

Is optimism tied to American-style individualism?

A person can be optimistic about a lot of things. A sports fan can be optimistic that their favorite team is going to have a good season. Some people are optimistic about the future. But, does optimism spring more readily from a culture that also values individualism?

This article sets out to show just such a link.

As an aside, I’m always surprised that the Germans are such a dreary lot.

The piece cites a Pew Research Center study of 44 countries that focused on people’s sense of control and also the effect of hard work. The results show that Americans believe both in the ability of the individual to exercise control and also in the value of hard work to affect an outcome.

Seems sensible but, then again, I’m an American.

Our individualized optimism is even set apart among other wealthy nations. Again, what’s Germany’s problem? They build some great cars and have the Autobahn for goodness sake.

I find the study results interesting because I do not find the average American all that optimistic. Instead I see and hear a sense of stuckness from a lot of people. People are questioning the cost and benefit of everything from education to government. Certitude of mission seems in short supply. Not even NASA seems sure of their mission these days.

Still, there’s a kind of resilience alongside the uncertainty, a kind of confidence borne of the unusual alchemy of democracy and individualism. As attitudinally challenged as we are here, I’m glad I’m not in Germany.

Is optimism tied to American-style individualism?

Flow & living as an art

A couple years ago, when I first started to think about optimism I considered the phrase, living is an art.

It seemed like a pretentious notion, perfectly mated to new age sensibilities. As time went on I began to think that even if it did seem pretentious it might very well be true.

The word flow triggers the same response. This article defines flow and describes its eight ingredients:

1 The experience occurs usually when we are involved in tasks that we have a good chance of completing.

2 We are able to concentrate fully on the activity.

3 The task has clear goals.

4 The task is such that it gives us immediate feedback on how well we are doing.

5 Our involvement is “deep but effortless” and this “removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.”

6 There is a sense of exercising control over our actions.

7 Concern for the self disappears but paradoxically our “sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.”

8 We lose our normal sense of time “we can feel either that it has speeded up (and passed quickly) or slowed down.”

Just to show how challenging flow can be when it comes to, oh let’s say, golf and writing consider my take on them respective to those activities:

1 This is a very poor fit. The sense that the task of writing and golf can be completed is completely absent from the experience. There’s always another swing to be made and another word to be chosen.

2 Yes, full concentration on both golf and writing is highly desirable.

3 Yes, the goals are clear (usually).

4 Um, sometimes the task gives immediate feedback and sometimes it doesn’t. I can spend quite a bit of time writing only to realize days later that what I wrote didn’t really work. Similarly, working on golf involves a good bit of sideways and even some backward steps. It’s simply a very hard game and reliable feedback isn’t a constant.

5Effortlessness in golf or writing is both rare and short lived. It does happen, it’s glorious and then it’s gone.

6 Certainly, control over actions is a feature in both golf and writing.

7 The disappearance of the self is a tough one, too.

“Just be the ball.” -Ty Webb in Caddyshack

8 The emergence of the stronger self is true. Success brings confidence. In golf, I can recall certain shots, the way impact felt, the way the ball flew and I can imagine myself doing it again. Good writing, too, breeds an excitement about the next idea, the next event and the next part of a story. Time does speed up when I’m writing, but that’s mostly because I am always putting it between the rock and a hard place of other activities that demand my attention. Golf has an easier time of it; if I’m on the range or the course the nature of time does change.

More flow is a good thing, but it’s not always easy to achieve.

Flow & living as an art

The optimism & gratitude connection

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” – Cicero

I believe this.

Rarely do any of my borderline-pessimistic friends speak of gratitude. They tend, instead, to repeat narratives about those who have slighted them. Each repetition make the offense new again.

It’s a very bad habit.

The funny thing is that even though I can trend toward pessimism I have feelings of immense gratitude. To start with, I am grateful to God and the fates for living where I do and when. I was never so foolish that my gratitude toward my parents faltered. I know that few parents measure up to mine when it came to love, support and understanding. They were amazing people.

On the other hand, gratitude can bring out something else in me as well. On the other side of gratitude is a fear that even with all of the gifts and benefits I’ve enjoyed, my life’s work may not amount to much. It’s the feeling of knowing you’ve had so much help and good fortune but it still might not be enough. In those sobering moments I am prone to remind myself that Van Gogh sold only one painting, The Red Vineyard, and then died a few months later at the age of 37.

The Red Vineyard

My total writing sales amount to just about what Van Gogh got for his painting and I’m now 53. I say it’s sobering to avoid using the word depressing.

Still, I am glad to have so much gratitude in my heart. I just need to create a technique that allows me to convert feelings of thankfulness into optimistic action, and that’s proven tricky for me so far.

The optimism & gratitude connection