Enveloped by an ever increasingly complex digital façade, this old world and our human brains are the zenith of analog technology. We want to believe that we are rational, that we make sound decisions based on facts, but the monsters from the Id are with us, and our instinctive traits, without which we’d not be able to walk or drive a car mind you, are always there, always active, and, unless we take care, largely control our behaviors. For me, a sight-reading piano player, this is very clear because if I have to consciously think about the music and what my fingers are doing, I must stop playing. This is true in lots of the things we do, and even the decisions we make, and while this is emerging science as we see in the excellent PBS Series Hacking Your Mind, philosophers and politicians have understood this for ages, certainly since Aristotle touched on these topics in Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima, both before 322 BCE (when he died).
The oracle at Delphi famously tells all comers “know thyself”. This is an elusive goal, because our innate bases tend for us to know about group formation and supporting members of groups as early as age three, and it is sometimes very hard to extricate our rational selves from the expectations and sympathies we have for the groups to which we informally belong. In ways, breaking a group affiliation – even one we never overtly formed – is traumatic and even dangerous – think of a gay person coming out for instance. That is, it is one thing to know thyself, it is quite another to be thyself. Further, being yourself does not justify doing things that cause harm to others, which creates a conundrum for instantiating one’s self where what one is and believes, when out of the closet, even as a politically socially liberal fiscally conservative person as am I, will predictably cause some sort of negative reaction or anguish in others.
We have a duty to each other to be selfless yet we have a duty to ourselves not to live a lie. It’s a balancing act, and a hard one to boot, and the evidence confirming our second sort of auto-pilot selves changes the rules – know thyselves not know thyself. I’ll not go further towards what this tells about human duality which is an very involved subject especially in theology, but the research underway goes a long way towards showing that we all have two selves, and we already know that, don’t we? It’s not that we are good and evil striving within, but that we have an incredible mental capacity for automatic action and reaction that can fool us if we’re not careful. As the wise native American is credited with saying “We have both a good wolf and a bad wolf inside of us, my son. What then shall I do, Father? Feed the good wolf!” Not good and evil, but rational and easy. Simple solutions are the bane of our existence.
In this post, I’m going to discuss that balancing act in a specific context, that of choosing whom to vote for in the upcoming presidential election. I’ve chosen that because I have personally struggled a great deal with this choice, and I think this has a lot to do with the various ways people “hack our minds”.
On with the show.
I suppose this story starts out with me being a lifelong republican who has started voting for various independents and democrats because I pay attention to what they say, what they write, and I inform myself. Before I go further, I must out myself and say I voted for Trump in 2016. Shocking, isn’t it.
But, as one says, hindsight is perfect or at least better informed, if and only if we can weed through the hot buttons being pressed, the incomplete and polemic information, the propaganda, and come to rational terms with the choices to be made and what their impacts are or may be we might do better, I might do better.
Perhaps it’s like a good round of solitaire. I win 73% of the time, which means that I cheat. What I do is go forward until I’m blocked and then undo plays until the blocking card is removed and make a different choice and move forward with the game, often repeating the process until it’s either a puzzle that my pea brain can’t solve or I just give up and start a new game. Of course, I go through the deck many times in playing, not just a one through as some games are played. The game is scored for play of cards as well as time, so when I do that my scores are very low but my win percentage remains high.
When one does that, studies how one has played making different choices going forward, one learns how one has decided and ponders the decisions made. Most often, when I play a card from the deck and there was a face-up option on the board, I consider this a misplay. But when I could select two or more face-up options from the board, I always select the one with more cards underneath it unless the other option would create a spot for a king that has more cards underneath it than the other optional play. When I back-track and see that I didn’t make that choice, I consider it a misplay. But one does not know what is in the stack under the face-up cards whereas one does know, by this point, what’s in the deck. The goal is to place all cards in sequence on the Aces, which requires some ordering of cards and often creates blocks due to a missing card in the sequence. That missing card could be in any of the face-down stacks, and this is random, so the number of cards in a stack has absolutely nothing to do with the possibility that I’ll get the card I need from a particular stack because I’m only going to get one card regardless of how many are in that stack. It’s a bias, and it’s also a strategy for making decisions without sufficient data, time being of the essence ,and since I cheat anyway, the consequences for making the wrong choice are in time and pondering takes time.
Biases are often pleasant, they tell use we’re clearing the stack, that we’re making progress, they form stories that we tell ourselves that may not be true. They constrain our worldviews, our notions of what is helpful and what is hurtful, what “karma” is, even our religious beliefs.
Accordingly, before we go towards 2020’s choice, we’ve got to dig back into 2016’s choice.
I didn’t vote for President Obama in either term, but I admire him albeit the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to him eleven days after he was in office badly tarnishes the honor. Changes made to health care during his administration impacted me and my wife badly, both in terms of our premiums and our out of pocket expenses. We reach the maximum out of pocket by March of each year given our conditions, which means over $7,000 out of pocket in three months. I can afford that, most cannot. This is a disaster from that perspective alone, and all because employers dropped their “Cadillac” plans because the ACA was to punish them for it. It gave corporate America the excuse to shift the burden from the corporation to the employee, something President Obama and his team did anticipate but should have, and that creates a hot button topic for me.
Moreover, I find the deal with Iran and sending an aircraft literally stuffed with cash to a despotic nation to bribe them not to create nuclear weapons shameful. Rather than Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps we should have explained this forcefully to Iran who is also clearly a large sponsor of unrest and outright terrorism. That, then, created another hot button for me.
Then there’s my desire for term limits across the board which is a hot button, as well as congress and the president being held to account under the same laws they impose on the nation. I’m also not a fan of executive orders changing immigration enforcement and the like. I was not a fan of don’t ask don’t tell favoring a change in military policy and the uniform code of military justice instead.
So, in 2016, I didn’t vote for Tump in the primaries. He’s not likable, he’s a bully, he’s brash, he’s not a the sort of republican I am or was, and he quietly sided with the evangelical groups whose use of force to create religious obedience I abhor. That said, he hit every one of my hot buttons and more. Furthermore, the media played into his hands by its constant attacks and even the republicans who are more to my liking did so with the never Trump campaign. These attacks and rumors were not fair, they were often neither accurate nor in context, and I tend to side with the underdog when pressed, especially after having personally dug into the complaints and found the proper context and full information. In fact, they outraged me. I’ve lived long enough to remember Bush Sr.’s re-election bumper sticker “Vote for Bush – irritate the media” it read. And, frankly, the case for Clinton was weak, she’d rigged the democratic convention with the super delegates, and so forth and so on. And I voted republican, for Trump. My biggest regret at that moment was the Pence was on the ticket, but remember, I’ve voted for McCain/Palin. God help me.
Pulling the cards back we should be able to see the story I built for myself, because this is what we all do. I built a story that validated my membership in the republican party out of the various things that Obama did that I found harmful to myself and my image of how America ought to be. I then looked through the incredibly broad and vague fog being emitted by the Trump campaign and found statements that directly supported things that made me feel as though I belonged whereas I found things in the Clinton campaign that made me feel otherwise. It was not the story that either campaign told but, rather, the story I told myself that made the difference and allowed all of the rational concerns about either candidate’s ability to govern take a back seat to those hot buttons. I allowed my passions and not right reason to rule the day. When someone is drowning, or is in danger, that’s the right thing to do and it’s instinctive. When we vote, it’s not the right thing to do.
So then, for nearly four years I’ve weighed this decision. The story I like to tell myself is that my vote made no difference because Texas went heavily for Trump anyway, but if everyone had done their due diligence and really considered the stories they told themselves, that might not have been the case. Each must do as their conscience guides.
The media and celebrity focus on the Trump administration has done him no harm and has annealed his base as a community under siege pulls together. The gross imbalance of media concern regarding Republicans as compared with Democrats has almost completely destroyed their credibility in reporting news, just as Fox’s credibility is become like unto the tabloid press. Indeed, TMZ often gets stories and gets the right before anyone else. Those incessant and often incomplete or misleading polemics foster stories told by supporters that the wrongs committed by our President are simply misunderstood and not what they appear. That his bombast and caustic reactions are justified. This trap is easy to fall into, and President Trump leverages every bit of it, even fans it with his twitter feed.
And what does the noble opposition offer us? An old white guy, a very old white guy, with lots of baggage and a good heart. The problem is that in the debate, Mr. Biden made statements that are simply not workable or rational. He stated that there were a few bad apples in the police force yet bias is endemic – it’s not racism the way we think of it, it’s the affinity bias common groups that we need training and rational thought to overcome. He stated that the Biden green plan would involve materials exclusively made in the United States through bolstering the Buy American act. That’s simply not possible, we don’t manufacture a lot of things and if we did the price would be astounding. He made several statements that were simply silly and fed the Trump forgiving story that we tell ourselves, and he overstated the initial failures in the Corona virus as if the administration could have avoided it by acting quicker albeit the administration did act quickly to ban travel to the raucous indignation of Mr. Biden, the WHO, and many. But at the same time, my mind was overlooking Trump’s horrible behavior on stage, in office, his betrayal of the Kurds, that sword dance in Saudi Arabia, and so forth and so on.
Then our President got Corona virus continued a narrative that it was not dangerous and directly stated that people should not be concerned and that broke the story I’d tried to tell myself. My wife is immune deficient and receives IV treatment for that condition. I have N-95 masks from the H1N1 era and you can bet your bippy that I use them. Once the storyline was firmly broken, any support for him unraveled very rapidly. I made one last gasp at bolstering my story by watching the VP debate, but I must out myself here too. I don’t like Pence and what he stands for, I don’t like religious people using laws to mandate their beliefs on other people, and I do like Kamala Harris. Watching Vice President Pence’s performance at the news conference where the Corona team was announced and how he almost literally licked the boots of our president left me disgusted. After all, the president cannot fire the vice president, but he might be able to scotch a future presidential run. That, too, would break my story line about republicans, it is broken but not entirely erased. The party has ceased to exist in my view. My decision is made, I’m for Joe and have hope for Kamala. I hope that you will vote however your stories lead you to, but that you will also essay to challenge the stories that you tell yourself. It’s important.
It’s important because there’s much more information thrown at us today than ever before, and the vast majority of it either seeks to profit directly from your choices by influencing them, even your choices to use a particular news service and its advertisers, or to profit from you in alliance to a cause. That’s why my studies have unceasingly been to understand worldviews, mostly ancient: these are the stories that defined societies and where people fit within those stories. Ours is no different, and that’s the final topic of this post.
Part of the Trumpian narrative that did not resonate in my self story-telling was the Make American Great Again theme. If we strive for something, then the opposite must be at least in part true, that America is not great, that it has lapsed into a dystopian reality. America has its ups and downs, as I’ve written elsewhere, black lives matter, our justice system and law enforcement need serious review and reform, all people need to be held to account for their actions, we’ve got to stop our systemic denigration of people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, all sorts of folks, but not with politically correct speech. No, we need to make the harder change of acceptance not tolerance, of understanding that we all have biases and affinity towards groups and people like us just as part of human nature, and work towards equity without trying to build a country where people are afraid to open their mouths and be who they truly are.
We have neighborhoods that are horrible. I, in fact, lived for 19 years in what would become the highest crime area in Dallas(while I still lived there, please note). I had a drug dealer for a neighbor for about six months. My apartment was burglarized twice, my car thrice. I get it, we’ve got a real problem, but when the police treat the victims as criminals it’s a bit hard to blame people for lack of cooperation. We need lots of changes, and we need fewer laws, laws that focus on danger to others and not a nanny-state that protects people from themselves. But my stripes from the old Republican party, a party for liberty, justice, equity, ah, well, it isn’t what it was and it never was what it was. A vapor, a dream.
Then notion that America is somehow not great is a false narrative. America is her people, and we are rowdy, opinionated, brash, loud, and proud. This has not changed, indeed it has gotten better as more and more people are free to be themselves, free to exit the closets and demand fair treatment, demand that driving while black not be a crime. Yes, habitual protests have to stop because they do harm and no good. Organization and strategies must be developed to show the people what is happening and do so truthfully. This is in progress; it’s happening. Order is very important, as is safety of person and property. Laws, on the other hand, often need to be changed. Laws, regulations, policies, the stories we tell ourselves, all of these things need change. We know this, we’re making it a priority, people are struggling for this kind of America, but that’s what America has always been, a struggle to improve. This is her greatness manifested in her people who ascend and improve with time and knowledge and wisdom. And this is why I don’t like folks putting shame on our national anthem. Try and do this kind of changing in most countries and, well, results may not be very good. America’s greatness lies here, have no doubt, she is still great, because you are great.
By the way, on the VP debate, I believe Senator Harris won. The fly came in second, hence the name of this post.