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Wired and worried: Why we’re anxious about our technology

18 Jun

In my previous post, I wrote about a stream of critiques that are asking serious questions about the new technological world we’re inventing and investing in: Where is all this leading? Maybe it’s some kind of Rorschach test, but there’s a pattern to these articles and books–at least a half-dozen connected anxieties that keep emerging, at least the ones I see. You might recognize more. If you do, chime in with your comments.

1. We’re connected, but are we really detached? We have all sorts of digital ways to “network,” but what about the face-to-face connections? Can a Facebook friend ever be like a flesh-and-blood friend? Are cyber-communities real communities?

2. The Internet might want to be free, but are we actually trapping ourselves? All so-called developed nations–and more and more of the developing societies–depend on electronic and digital technologies just to keep our basic services functioning. Have we wired ourselves into a corner? The nightmare scenario, of course, is that, by accident or intent, our energy grids, water supplies, and transportation systems fail, bringing on a new dark age of catastrophe and chaos. Security experts are working overtime on preventing cyber-attacks that could paralyze us.

3. We invent and use technology to gain unprecedented power, but will our technology one day take control?  This corollary to No. 2 is a staple of the sci-fi canon: What happens when our machinery gets smart and powerful enough to take over? Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sinister rabbit-hole world of The Matrix, the rebellion in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. But we don’t need some fictitious future. The potential is as close as Google. As Nicholas Carr noted in 2008,

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.”

4. Is our technology changing us from being citizens to being merely consumers? As much as I like George Orwell, he got it wrong in his famous dystopian tale, 1984, in which an all-powerful, all-seeing government runs people’s lives.

No, it’s looking more corporate all the time. As Neil Postman pointed out a generation ago, we’re closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to Orwell’s vision. (For another take on the same idea, check out David Mitchell’s excellent mind-bending novel, Cloud Atlas.) To quote Carr again:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

5. We can dive into the world from our TVs and desktops, but are we just swimming in the shallows? So much information, so little depth. You name it: Relationships, knowledge base, attention spans. We have more information at our finger tips than ever before, but it’s not clear that we’re better educated or more perceptive thinkers. (I haven’t read it yet, but I wonder if Thomas Bergler’s new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, excerpted in June’s Christianity Today, strikes a similar chord. Anyone?) Wisdom? There’s not an app for that.

6. We have more portals to humanity than ever, but are we becoming less human? The answer to this question depends on how we define “human,” of course. But whether it’s in how we experience the world around us, in how we relate to other people, in how we think, in what we value as a culture and, more and more, how much technology will literally get under our skin and become part of us, the unsettling question is: What are we doing to ourselves as people? (The Matrix, again, anyone?)

So what to do? Diane Ackerman, writing in her New York Times blog, offers a couple of suggestions, and they’re not a bad place to begin: “I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. … One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature.”

What we can’t do is pretend this stuff doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, or that we can somehow go back to the days before … when, exactly? Not that I want to. I like most of these tools and toys. I’m writing this on a Mac that’s wirelessly connected to the Internet, for heaven’s sake, and I’ve been able to almost instantly connect to books and articles published all over the globe. My cell phone just buzzed with another text. On Saturday I carried on a real-time conversation with friends in Egypt, and we could see each other. Later I got to watch a soccer match, live from Poland.

But that’s not to say these things are unalloyed, all good and no bad. There are always trade-offs and we have valid reasons to ask questions.

Just getting in the habit of thinking about these questions is a start. That’s got to be better than handing ourselves over to research labs or the marketing departments of Silicon Valley.

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Digital civilization and its discontents

13 Jun

A funny thing is happening on the way to digital paradise, and I’m not talking about the Facebook stock dive or the LinkedIn password hacking.

Intelligent, inquiring minds want to know: What is all our technology and connectivity doing to us? We may not be downloading the devil, but some voices are asking what hath Google and Facebook wrought.

Technology angst isn’t new. Some folks in the 1400s predicted cultural and theological catastrophe when Gutenberg re-invented the printing press. We might just be updating old anxieties—Technophobia 2.0–but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions, and several writers are. A select list:

Four years ago, Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, asked, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Yes, the misspelling was intentional.) Maybe not making us exactly stupid, he concludes, but something else: turning us into “pancake people,” borrowing a phrase from playwright Richard Foreman, people who are “spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Last month, Stephen Marche asked a companion question in the same magazine: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Based on new research, Marche says the answer is, roughly, yes. More narcissistic too.

Journalist Maggie Jackson wrote on similar themes in book length a few years ago in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2009).

The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. … The seduction of alternative virtual universes, the addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conception of space, time, and place have been shattered. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and our days are marked by perpetual loose ends. … We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.

And then this week, science writer Diane Ackerman asks in the New York Times, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” She’s not a Luddite, but she frets that we are cutting ourselves off from the world, even as we try to “experience” more of it online:

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

I can see at least a half-dozen interconnected anxieties that keep surfacing in these various critiques. I’ll save those for the next post. (This is a blog, after all, and so this post should stay fairly brief. Irony? You betcha.)

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about the impact of our new technology. What do you make of these concerns and questions? Please add a comment to the blog and get in the conversation.

~~

(I found the photo illustration here, but I could not find information about who created it, permissions, etc.)

American. Christian. One of these is not like the other.

19 May

Last week I finally started reading a slim volume that’s been waiting on my bookshelf since last fall. Not a moment too soon.

A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf (Brazos Press, 2011) tackles a chronic, nettlesome question: What kind of relationship should Christians (and perhaps by extension, other people of faith) have with their culture?

Writing “as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ,” Volf offers an alternative approach to the extreme positions that can define the boundaries of faith in the public square: “totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion” or “secular exclusion of all religions from public life.” (He might have added an older reflex among many Christians, to vacate and try to ignore the public square altogether.)

The timing was good because, along with the rest of the universe, I was trying to digest President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which came on the heels of the North Carolina amendment that banned such unions in the state.

But that was only the biggest headline among several in recent weeks that reminded me how hard it is to navigate a believer’s “dual citizenship.” Michelle Bachmann’s recent Swissues are nothing compared to the complications of being a Christian and an American.

For starters, there was military college course, now suspended, that advocated total war on Islam, using the World War II firebombing at Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as models for how to deal with Muslim sites.

There was a budget proposal in the U.S. House that would have reduced the deficit by drawing down education, welfare and other social-aid programs, while increasing defense spending and not touching tax rates. (The Senate voted down this budget on May 16.)

Closer to home, several readers didn’t like a piece I wrote in a Christian magazine, which reported on a survey that found that Fox News viewers were not as well informed about the Occupy Movement as consumers of other news outlets and that Fox viewers have a significantly more negative view of the Occupy protesters.

I’m not surprised by criticism. But one reader baffled me when he said he didn’t want to believe that “a professor of communications from the restoration side could believe that swill.” (He was referring to my church heritage and that of the college where I teach, which has its roots in the Stone-Campbell, or “Restoration,” Movement.) His remark left me wondering: When did uncritically accepting Fox News—or any media outlet—become an essential of the faith?

Miroslav Volf

I can spot a thread running through these events: some American values and ideas—including good ones—are not necessarily Christian ones.

What I mean is that as an American, I cherish free speech, equal rights under law, freedom of religion and a long list of other civic virtues. But as a Christian, I have other principles besides, expressed most obviously in Sermon on the Mount and modeled most powerfully by Jesus himself.

No doubt that American and Christian values peacefully co-exist much of the time; sometimes they even agree.

But not always. As the last few weeks show, there’s often tension if not contradiction or outright conflict. For instance, I can’t see how to honestly interpret Jesus’ words or life as condoning “total war” against people of other faiths.

And maybe I’m missing something, but the thrust of that proposed budget seemed to turn upside down those Scriptures that warn against God’s people relying on chariots for their security, as well as dozens of texts that call for generosity and justice for poor people (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-2; 25:4; 47:6; 58:7; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:8-9—just for starters).

Then there’s same-sex marriage. As an American, I believe in equal rights under law for all people, including gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, same-sex marriage is not biblical. We can debate whether all those Jewish and Christian Scriptures that govern sexual conduct are relevant or binding or even rightly interpreted, but four millennia of teaching and tradition places the burden of proof on those who say same-sex unions should be consecrated by the church.

To put it another way: While same-sex marriage may be American, a matter of equal rights and social order, I can’t say it’s Christian.

I find Volf helpful when thinking through these kinds of tensions, in large part because he starts by recognizing there’s no single way in which Christian faith ought to relate to culture as a whole. “The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that,” he writes. “Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more.”

Volf uses his book to answer three “simple questions”:

  1.  In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions?
  2.  What should be the main concern of Christ’s followers when it comes to living well in the world today?
  3.  How should Christ’s followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today’s world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state?

I’m not sure they’re actually that simple, but if you’re interested in thoughtful answers to these questions, pick up this book. Volf is accessible—a fine, formal and clear writer who keeps the theological jargon tamped down. He’s helping me think about the tension I’ve been feeling, as keenly as ever, of living as a Christian in America.

Colson: Good-bye to a joyful man

23 Apr

Charles Colson (1931-2012)

I never had a short conversation with Charles Colson. We talked only twice and I came away convinced he had too many thoughts and too many tasks to squander on small talk.

Colson died on Saturday at the age 80. The obituaries have noted his life and career: Nixon White House operative (famous for saying he’d be willing to run over his grandmother for the president and other tidbits). Watergate figure who did prison time for obstruction of justice. A  “born-again Christian” who started what became the largest prison ministry in the world. A public thinker, author and frequent gadfly who, to his credit, aimed to appeal to the brains of skeptics and believers–and not just their hearts–in his articles, books and the Wilberforce Forum. But as several commentators have said since he died, Colson’s most memorable legacy may be his life, a picture of redemption.

The first time we met was in July 1990, when he was a keynote speaker at a church convention in Kansas City. At the time I was editing a small Christian magazine called The Lookout and arranged an interview. Actually, I thought I would just be part of a press conference, but only I and an editor for a small Filipino Christian magazine showed up–and after a few questions, the Filipino editor left. It was Chuck Colson and me, one on one for 45 minutes.

He seemed a little annoyed, maybe because no Kansas City media showed up, but he patiently answered my questions and in the process gave me a lesson in interviewing. I had my agenda, but it didn’t take long for the old lawyer and politico to skillfully and subtly take charge. I didn’t even notice until I looked at my notes later. I don’t remember much about the interview or the resulting article itself. What I remember most clearly is his energy, his Yankee-lawyer drive (not to mention his clipped cadence), his finely sharpened mind, and, when he talked about his standing before God, his humility. He didn’t laugh often during our conversation, but he exuded what they would call in the 19th century “good cheer.” Here was a joyful man.

Colson during his White House days, with President Nixon (left) and aide Ken Clawson (right) in May 1972.

I spoke with him again at length almost nine years later. Another interview, but this time  it was for a job. We spoke by phone since I was holed up at the suburban Washington offices of Prison Fellowship and Colson’s think tank, the Wilberforce Forum, and he was in Florida. I had arrived just ahead of a February ice storm, the same one that prevented him from traveling to D.C. Colson was my last interview of the day. I sat in an office alone with a phone, and we talked for about a half hour. He asked a few questions about my family and my background, and I think we spent about 10 minutes or so actually talking about the job–but then he took off for intellectual highlands and brought me along.

The interview changed altitude quickly, almost naturally: From the job to the goals of the Wilberforce Forum and his writing, to the shifts he saw in Western culture and in the church. He’d talk a few minutes and then punctuate his remarks with a question: What did I think of this author or that trend? What did I make of this historical connection he had made? He was testing me, of course, but at some point the mode shifted from interview to conversation. Through the phone lines, I could feel that familiar passion and good cheer.

I can’t claim Chuck Colson as a friend or colleague. (It didn’t work out for me to go to Prison Fellowship, probably the best result for all concerned.) The time I spent with him was a blip in the course of his 80 remarkable, turbulent, redemptive years. But I’m grateful that we met and that I got to join those heady, challenging conversations with him. And like so many others, I’m simply thankful for Chuck Colson. He realized, maybe as few people do, that he was a rescued, reconciled man, and he spent his days aiming to pass on that gift.

 

Breaking news: Political conservatives are not stupid!

9 Apr

Count to 10. Easy, right? Almost automatic.

Now, count to 10 again—but in alphabetical order. That’s different.

Now mentally trace a route you often drive or walk—to your job or the grocery store or school. Again, simple.

Now, imagine that your normal path and even the next most obvious route to the same place are blocked. What’s your third- or fourth-choice route?

That little exercise illustrates the difference between what psychologists call “low-effort,” or “automatic,” thinking and “controlled” thinking. Most researchers believe we manage most of our days with automatic thinking, which frees our brains to focus on more complex, unfamiliar or difficult tasks. That’s how I can make a tuna sandwich or pump gas or drive to work while I think about details for my daughter’s wedding or how to revise a class schedule or deal with the insurance company.

That’s the kind of difference Scott Eidelman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and his colleagues discuss in a recent research journal article. The title might explain why it’s generated a lot of friction.

Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” published online in March in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, states a simple thesis, summarized in a news release: “People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response. This low-effort thinking seems to favor political conservatism, suggesting that it may be our default ideology.” (The paper identified “political conservatism” with three common traits: “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”)

To be clear, the researchers added, “We are not saying that conservatives think lightly.”

Or that they’re stupid. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of several conservative bloggers.

Study: Conservatism ‘linked to low brainpower’” according to the aggrieved TeaParty.org. “Study ‘Proves’ Conservatism Linked To Stupidity” The Ulsterman Report sarcastically proclaimed. The Conservative Review harrumphed: Conservatism Comes From “Low Brainpower?” Not So Fast, Eggheads At University Of Arkansas. And you have to love the headline from the Washington Examiner: “Study: Dumb drunk people are more conservative.”

During a phone conversation on Friday I asked Eidelman if any of these headlines were accurate interpretations. In a word: “No.”

Scott Eidelman, Ph.D.

While he’s happy people are talking about the research, Eidelman confessed he was “a little disappointed” in how the study has splashed onto the blogosphere.

He compared the reaction to a game of telephone: When social scientists use a term like “low-effort thinking,” they’re using specific jargon to describe the normal, automatic thinking we all do—counting to 10, driving to work—in contrast to the “second-phase” thinking we do when we have time to ponder a subject.

But apparently some knee-jerk commentators saw “low effort” and “translated” it to mean “no-effort” or “lazy” or even “stupid.” Those mistakes got picked up and amplified by others. The “quotations” in the headlines are actually from other commentators, not from the scientists. For the record, the following words don’t appear anywhere in the original research: stupid, stupidity, stupidly, brainpower (low or otherwise), dumb. Not even prove or proves. And not, um, egghead.

Eidelman did not point out the irony of how such shoddy treatment only reinforces the kind of “stupid” stereotype that the commentators are complaining about. You can leave that to me.

“It’s not that political conservatism promotes low-effort thought,” he told me. “What we found is that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s not the same.”

Eidelman drew an analogy: He might carry an umbrella because it’s raining, but that’s completely different from saying that it’s raining because he carries an umbrella. In other words, while low-effort (or “first-response”) thinking tends to promote political conservatism, being conservative doesn’t tend to promote low-effort thinking.

This conservative tendency is roughly reflected in clichés about “comfort zones” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” As Eidelman noted, certain “conservative” characteristics are built into humans for our benefit, such as the tendency to save our energy or avoid unnecessary risks.

“If you want to look at evolutionary history, people were more likely to survive if they assumed a person approaching was a threat,” he explained. “It was smarter to assume that unknown plant was poisonous rather than edible. Or the sooner you know your place in a society, the better your chances to thrive.”

Sometimes those “first responses” were correct: the stranger was indeed hostile or the plant was really poisonous. But sometimes the stranger would turn out to be an ally or the plant a healing herb. In those cases, the “first response” would be … well, wrong. Finding out if the first (“low-effort”) thinking was correct could be discovered only with “second-step” thinking.

“When people don’t have the opportunity to engage in political thinking, when you strip away the effortful thinking, they tend to be conservatives,” Eidelman said. “But that’s only concerning the first-step thinking. We don’t have much on what the second step is. It’s an open question if that first response is correct. We haven’t measured outcomes. We think the scales are tipped toward conservatism. But whether it’s good or right to challenge that depends on people’s values and goals.”

Eidelman wondered if this “low-effort” tendency might help explain at least one aspect of current American politics.

“Liberals might understand conservatives more than other way around, because liberals, in a way, started at the same place,” he suggested. So here’s a thought: could empathy explain why congressional Democrats are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, to compromise more often on legislation than their Republican colleagues?

As we finished talking, it occurred to me that America’s Founding Fathers were literally invested in the status quo of the British colonies. They valued hierarchy, as their later writing of the Constitution proved. They preached personal responsibility. They sound a lot like political conservatives. But Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others did anything but stop at “low-effort” thinking. If they had, we might never have seen the American Revolution.

Citified America and other facts of life. Deal with it.

27 Mar

Cities on our minds, even back in the day. Life magazine, Dec. 24, 1965.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum bragged about his appeal to small-town, rural America last week, even pitting himself again urbanites. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. We all have our audience.

But if Mr. Santorum really wants to be president, then the math of small-town America is working against him. Like the rest of world’s population, which became mostly urbanized in the last decade, most Americans by far live in urban areas, according to the Census Bureau. That’s not news; that’s been the case for decades.

The most recent figures from the Census Bureau show that 79 percent of Americans live in urban areas. (In 1790, the days of the founding fathers, only 5.1 percent did.) The trend toward urbanization has slowed a little, but it continues.

So I find Mr. Santorum’s souring on cities a little confusing. Even an electoral map of last week’s Illinois Republican primary shows where most people live. He won the greater number of counties in the state, but thanks to Chicagoland, Peoria and Springfield, not the greatest number of voters. In fact, Mitt Romney won the state by almost 12 percentage points–a difference of more than 100,000 votes out of fewer than one million cast.

Mr. Santorum’s emphasis on values taps into a certain nostalgia and romanticism about small-town life. I know its charms firsthand. My earliest memories are of New York City, but the moves of my life since childhood have taken me to ever-smaller places. The town I call home now boasts a population of about 63,000, and sizable swaths of farmland still exist inside the city limits (although housing and commercial developments are gradually erasing them). Emotionally, the intersection of Norman Rockwell Boulevard and Disneyfied-Main-Street is a very inviting place.

But that’s not where most of us live. Not anymore. So Mr. Santorum or anyone else who wants to be president must deal with the fact of cities. Like it or not.

Mr. Santorum’s dilemma prompted me to think about other assumptions about American practices and ideas that don’t really match reality, at least anymore. A sampling:

  • Marriage rates are decreasing. In 1990, 9.8 people out of a thousand were married; in 2009, the latest figure available, the rate was 6.8—a 30 percent drop.
  • But divorce rates are decreasing too, from 6.1 per 1,000 to 3.8 in 2009.
  • These days, most children born to women under 30 years old are born out of wedlock.
  • The conventional wisdom used to be that couples who lived together without marriage were more likely to get divorced. Not anymore—not if they’re engaged when they are cohabiting.
  • Man as the breadwinner? Going, going … Present trends suggest that “by the next generation, more families will be supported by women than by men,” writes Liza Mundy in a new book excerpted in Time magazine (March 26). She continues: “Not since women entered the workforce by the millions after World War II has America witnessed economic change on this scale. Some of this is driven by the dramatic rise in single-parent families, but it is increasingly true in two-earner families as well. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures are available, nearly 4 in 10 working wives outearned their husbands–an increase of more than 50% from 20 years before.”

You can probably think of other stereotypes or dreamscapes that don’t fit reality anymore. (Feel free to add them in comments after this post.)

We might love or loathe any particular change, but that’s not the point. The point is: Certain facts reflect the current American landscape, and we must figure out how to navigate it rather than deny it or simply throw brickbats at it. Like it or not.

Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

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