January 30, 2009

Scatter-shooting – of Good and Evil

Op Ed page

A long time ago, in a land far away, I would go down to the Golden Buff Newsstand on Broadway in Boulder, Colorado where I would peruse news and opinion from around the world. This was back in the 60’s, and it was probably pretty odd at that time for a store in the United States to have rags from New York, San Francisco, London, Capetown, Cairo and Helsinki, all under the same roof. The status of the University of Colorado as a major research facility, and the presence of NOAA’s National Center of Atmospheric Research made the selling of these papers profitable, and their availability enhanced my exposure to other cultures while still at an impressionable age.

For a young, west Texas born country boy, this exposure provided startling revelation. Not everyone thought the same as we did. Morality, it seemed, was flexible and dependant on geography.

Over the years since I’ve continued the habit of following opinion pages of various newspapers. The more the merrier. Newfangled technology has aided my efforts considerably and I can now read English language versions of publications from around the world without getting out of my pajamas.
Fast-forward some 40 years from Boulder, and here I sit behind the glowing plasma screen of a laptop, prowling news and opinion stories on-line and musing on the same cultural differences that so startled me as a youth. What had its start in a smoky newsstand has led me to spend a great deal of time visiting various venues spewing differing opinion; radio, television, print and on-line sources, as well as listening to a variety of speakers around the world. It also encouraged me to spend time reading various tomes to learn how and why things happened from another perspective.

Morality and Patriotism

So history has been as much of a passion as news gathering. I’ve found that, with the combination of historical knowledge and an understanding of opinion, it becomes easier to see how societies led by charismatic leaders can be bent to a purpose. I’ve also learned that these purposes, and the actions demanded by them, have the potential for great good… or for great evil.

Probably the most well known recent example of this is the Third Reich. Adolph Hitler was very convincing, and German society was in a mood to be convinced. The resultant evil is undeniable, and also is abundant proof of how easily whole societies can be led to evil behavior; how they can be led to believe that there is good in something history will certainly judge to be evil.

"Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship,
or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

That was Hermann Goering testifying at the Nuremberg Trials. Pretty dramatic observation. With a bit of pause we can remember scores of similar, if smaller scale tales to tell—some old and some modern. A short list just might include:
  • Salem witch trials
  • Stalin
  • Mao
  • French-Algerian war
  • Bosnia
  • The People’s Temple (Jim Jones)
  • Civil wars in Congo, Sudan (twice), Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique and Nigeria
  • Khmer Rouge
  • 9/11/2001
Some in the world would say we should include the U.S. led war in Iraq and our war on terrorism. I’m almost inclined to agree.

Are we Sheep?

What is it about people that allows for this blind following of an articulate orator? Is it arrogance? Ignorance? Theology? Lack of understanding? Whatever it is, it can obviously be dangerous.

We are seeing a great deal of sheep mentality in the Obama craze, and just like with George Bush, it is reactionary rather than reasonable. The followers of Shrub suffered (still suffer?) from the same myopia, and I think our country has suffered greatly because of it. Dubya felt morally mandated to behave as he did. He believed he was divinely led. He followed his convictions. A little moderation would have gone a long way back then, but there was none.

He was wrong in so many ways, and some damn bad things have happened in the world because of it. The actions of the Bush administration enabled and caused atrocities. Of that I have no doubt, although I’m just as certain that some of the folks reading this will doubt my patriotism because I dare to speak these words.

Now the pendulum has swung. The over-action of the right-wingers has fomented an overreaction by the left. Will the results be as evil? Possibly. I fear we’ll see over-action in this administration, at least to some degree, if in an opposing direction. Unless the Obama cult can find moderation, America will suffer further.

A majority of voters in modern America, I think, display sheep mentality—chasing after ideals and following dogma rather than thinking for themselves and using reason. Sound bites uttered by shrill, emotion-provoking pundits rule the culture. The television news offers them all they feel they need to know, and thus we run from crisis to crisis.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but we’ve allowed the growth of a media that foments it, because it’s good for ratings (profits) when the people are afraid. Folks following narrowly focused opinions have nothing with which to compare them. Fear is the result. Everything is polarized, and attempts at moderate, fair coverage fail to reach an audience. We are selectively ignorant.

This is why we never see a quality candidate rise to the top of the ballot for either of the major parties. Just as Goering understood, people ignorant of the truth can be led like sheep. Everyone needs to have the benefit of a Golden Buff Newsstand. A little exposure to alternate cultures could go a long way.




Anonymous said...

You've posted an excellent piece and I agree with most all of your points. I hope the pendulum swing doesn't go so far to reach evil but admit the possibility. Some might say the financial bailout qualifies.

I would like to offer an issue you didn't mention. Today the U.S. is blessed with a large percentage of folks who do not participate in the democratic process, for various reasons. There is also a notable percentage of those who do vote, who make their choices while uninformed or misinformed - thus often voting against their own interests. I believe both groups act because of their lack of and/or poor education. I think this has an influence on why we don't see quality candidates. Perhaps we just don't vote the poor ones out early enough in their political careers, letting them rise above their level of competence.

The numbers of high school grads who can't read or read at the early elementary school level seems to increase every year. And a similar number have scant knowledge of the basic workings of government, which creates a serious short circuit in the whole democratic process. Until the education issue(s) are addressed, nothing will improve morally or politically. No one can make good choices from ignorance. These disadvantaged folks have no interest in learning about alternate cultures. I have no idea of how to fix the problem of the uneducated once they are past school age and dumped into society. As you pointed out, mass media isn't going to help fix it. If anything, it adds to the problems.

I strongly recommend that interested readers take a look Joe Bageant's site at:
He gets credit for being an influence on the way I think about government and society today.

Mule Breath... said...

Very good comments, and I appreciate you mentioning Joe's blog. I don't follow him much because I find him a bit strident for my taste, but he does have great style and has never failed to have good points. For entertainment alone, reading Joe is worth it. If I recall, he has a couple books out.

Interestingly, Joe and I experienced a "two ships passing in the night" phenomena, back in the 60's and 70's. He is 4 or 5 years older and had a head start, but we covered much of the same territory for much the same reason. Although I really can't say we ever met, we both called Boulder home at about the same time. Boulder, Colorado - the Haight-Asbury of the Rockies. Living there was good.

Your point about "uninformed or misinformed" voters was the core of my message. On this you, Joe and I all agree. What I would like to discuss is WHY people allow themselves to be misinformed. If one only listens to Fox news or CNN, and reads only the local rag, one will never know all of the facts. There is now the Internet, and so far it is uncensored. Even the public libraries have computers for free use, and most have a variety of newspapers and magazines.

The truth is there if one would but look for it. So why do people simple settle for whatever is dished out, and not seek verification? How many do you think voted for Obama simply because he is black? How many voted for McCain because Obama is black? Do you think either of those two subgroups had any real knowledge of the truth or fiction spewing from the campaigns? Answering those few questions might give us a start on deciphering the reasons people are so easily led down the primrose path.

Knowledge is power. In this country the power is concentrated in corporate media, which is more interested in entertaining than informing. Crap spews forth. The people just let it happen while they pull out the Wii, or tune to watch the next episode of Survivor.

Damn! I'm sounding more like Joe all the time!

Anonymous said...

One reason folks allow themselves to be misinformed is that they are educated to be so. Our mass media isn't the culprit - it is the supporter, the re-inforcer that repeats again and again corporate america's mantra of buy, buy, buy.

I believe 95 percent of the people who can't read or reads with difficulty won't web search or seek alternative views of the crap offered by mass media. When you add the folks who are just lazy, the number gets near unbelievable. Headline news on the tube is probably the biggest fear monger on the planet, ignoring the right wing radio and blogs. For the semi-literate and illiterate, there just aren't any sources for alternate viewpoints of issues - with the one exception I can think of which is union newsletters and some of those are as off the wall at the opposite extreme.

At the expense of also sounding like Joe, the blue collar worker (and increasingly the white collar folks too) ends the day exhausted, dispirited, and afraid (lack of job security, failing financial resources, continuing and impending violence, etc.) and has little energy left to search for truth. He wants and needs something to ease his mind or at least let him turn it off. Hence, the idiot box and Survivor, where he can watch someone else get it in the neck for a change.

The final paragraph in your comment is as neat a summation as I've read. I don't know of any rebuttal other than education and the education routinely offered today in America won't get the job done.

Mule Breath... said...

"One reason folks allow themselves to be misinformed is that they are educated to be so"

Certainly this is true, but I would ask if it has always been true. I know that I have been educated to be politically aware since about the age of 10. It this such a rarity? I remember the elementary school I was attending (Mediapolis, Iowa at the time - temporary duty for my dad) held a mock election to mirror the Kennedy-Nixon contest. At that early age, I was Kennedy's campaign manager. We lost. I remember listening to Ike's farewell speech on the radio. That wasn't that long ago. Have things changed so much?

Is it the truth to say "Johnny can't read."? Or is it more the truth to say "Johnny won't read."? Whichever is the case, what are the reasons? I'd like to understand why people become so comfortably oblivious to the world around them.

"america's mantra of buy, buy, buy"

The downside of capitalism is that it works so well, and our government seems to encourage the gluttony. This is a democracy, ruled by the majority, and the majority want to be gluttons. How many people, from anywhere in the world, would turn down the opportunity to indulge in gluttony if only briefly? I like my comforts, and I suspect you do too. It is very easy for us to become comfortable with gluttony, thus we become excessive consumers. Somebody, somewhere pays... but if it isn't us, why should we be concerned?

Perhaps because one day it might be us. Maybe that is what we are seeing right now. Maybe it is our turn in the barrel. (at this point Joe would be pointing out that the "big Jims" at the top of the global totem pole never do their turns in the barrel... and he would be right)

"some of those are as off the wall at the opposite extreme"

You were referencing union newsletters, but this is true across the spectrum. Pendulum politics is what I call it. One extreme gains power due to revulsion with the other extreme, then back again in 4 or 8 years. Moderation is a foreign concept to the public in general. There is no team... Only winners and losers.

"At the expense of also sounding like Joe"

Sound like Joe, please. Joe is right in so many ways. In so many ways I wish I were more like Joe. My only bitch is that he is too shrill to be taken seriously. Joe preaches the truth, he preaches it well, but he preaches only to the choir. Shrillness alienates folks.

"the education routinely offered today in America won't get the job done"

Well... it could. I agree that it doesn't, but it could. We have allowed our schools to become purveyors of dogma. I have no idea what to do about that.

Llama said...

"I know that I have been educated to be politically aware since about the age of 10. It this such a rarity?"

It's certainly not nearly as common as it used to be, in my opinion. I'm, oh, a good 30 years younger than you, at least, since I grew up in Boulder in the 80's. My elementary education was full of political awareness, and my parents supplemented that by encouraging us to read non-local newspapers at the library and actually discussing how we felt about things.

Now I'm watching friends' kids entering that same time in their lives, but with the political awareness largely absent. Most schools shy away from any mention of politics lest they be accused of "indoctrinating" the youngsters. It's become nearly impossible to have candid discussions in a lot of college classes (even poli-sci!) for the same reasons.

I've also seen just how busy even 5-6 year-old kids have become. They barely have time to get some playing in, much less read for fun anymore. As free time goes down, the ability to really broaden our educations goes down as well.

Mule Breath... said...

The Golden Buff Newsstand was located on the NE corner of Walnut and Broadway. Directly across Broadway was Carl's Hobby Shop, where you could find mostly powered control line and free flight model airplanes. Carl kept a chess set on the counter and would play with anyone who walked in, and he would sing while he played.

What was once Carl's is now a parking garage. Last I saw of Carl he had gotten into hang gliding. I watched him jump off one of the flatirons once.

Carl Malmstein. I wonder if he is still alive.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking. I'll be back shortly.

Anonymous said...

The folks who can fix the problems in our education system are the parents. But the parents don't have the energy to spend the time and effort necessary. And the parents today are becoming part of the group that experienced that poor education we've been complaining about and are thus oblivious to the problem.

I'm stumped. If parents are poorly educated, they can't tell if their children are being educated poorly and thus won't try to improve things. A vicious circle or perhaps a death spiral. . .

Depressing. I'm gonna go read something escapist.

Mule Breath... said...


I don't doubt a damn thing you've said, but at the same time I know this is not all of the problem.

In my time I've known more than a few well educated, bright people whose offspring have fallen flat. I understand you thesis that good parents without sufficient time to nurture won't have the successes we used to see, but I can't accept this as the true reason. Perhaps it is the combination of this and the overwhelming distractions of a technically advanced and overpopulated society. Perhaps something else.

The history of the world is lined with sheep, shepherds and sheep dogs. There always have been more sheep than the others... then there are the wolves.

I've just picked up Greg Bear's Moving Mars. So far it is pretty good.

Rogue Medic said...

I assume that you started your short list of examples of extreme crowd behavior, then only later decided to label it as from the 20th Century. Your first one is the Salem Witch Trials - 1692 to 1693.

In your first comment, you state, There is now the Internet, and so far it is uncensored.

In the US, but other countries have been limiting access to this powerful tool of people who love freedom. The most powerful weapon the people have is information. This has been essential to ending totalitarian governments.

Education-wise, the best book I have read on the subject is Teaching as a Subversive Activity‎ by Neil Postman, from 1969. It is about teaching students, not any particular point of view, but teaching them how to gather information, apply it, and draw conclusions for themselves.

Maybe Plato's books about Socrates are better in teaching by example, but Socrates was not lacking in subversiveness.

We do not prepare students to think for themselves. We prepare students to take multiple choice tests. We are not helping, unless we change - and I don't mean change with a capital O.

Mule Breath said...

> I assume that you started your short list of examples...

Yep, I missed that in one of my edits, but its corrected now. My original list was much longer, so I narrowed it a bit for space.

Rogue Medic said...

Yeah, I've never done that. ;-)

I wish.

chuckr44 said...

This post expresses what I have thought since 1987. The sheep mentality, called "sheeple" on Free Republic. And I'm not saying FR is moderate in their position either.

"One reason folks allow themselves to be misinformed is that they are educated to be so"

People today, and even 20 years ago when I went to high school, are not taught to analyze and think. They are taught to memorize facts and mathematical formulas. While my first 5 years of public education was spent in a Montessori school, where all students were taught to question everything, including authority to some extent, my transition to a non-Montessori school in grade 5 went poorly. However I retained my analytical thinking, if not my writing skills to express it.

As far as questioning authority in an elementary Montessori school, we were taught we could question when a punishment was too harsh, or suggest a better teaching experience. ("Let's not grow tomatoes this year for the science class, let's grow green beans.") It did not mean we got the change we wanted, but we could ask the question without punishment.