Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the first installment.]

I.  Comfortably Numb

I never studied abroad as a BC undergraduate, which was probably for the best, since I had vague designs of going to Australia (primarily to surf, of course). I felt honored to be invited to participate in the faculty seminar in Latin America, and decided to treat it as the study abroad experience I never had. Preparing for the trip, I found myself asking more basic questions: what is the point of study abroad? How does it fit into the greater purpose of college? And what does all of this have to do with human rights? I wondered: beyond the facts and statistics and history of the dictatorships and their litany of human rights violations, what will I learn of great value that I can bring back to my students? It wasn’t until weeks after I’d returned that I recalled a scene from the film Calvary that crystallized the most important thing I learned.


Continue reading “Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America”

The Jaime Lannister of Climate Politics

Bjorn Lomborg is like the Jaime Lannister of climate change politics:  a square-jawed, towheaded, smooth-talking semi-villain who never seems to go away.  Unlike the “Circes” of climate denial, he concedes that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat.  But he thinks devoting substantial resources to dealing with it is a miscalculation based on mistaken priorities.  He is a skeptic–not of the science, but of the policy.  His latest, an Op-Ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (paywall), rehashes the argument he’s been making for years.

You might be surprised to hear that Lomborg’s position on climate passes as liberal for the WSJ Op-Ed page.  Despite being the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, and one of the most widely respected, and a bastion of center-right thought, count the Journal a skeptic when it comes to climate change.

Lomborg’s was the article that tipped me over the edge and led me to spend a morning penning a letter to the editor that, as it turned out, got published a week later (albeit substantially trimmed):


Arguments like Lomborg’s are actually more dangerous than those of climate skeptics or deniers because they threaten to sow doubt among those who are already on board with climate science.

Below, I re-print my original letter to the Journal.  As you’ll see, its length is probably not the only reason they didn’t print the whole thing:

“Unlike the Journal, Bjorn Lomborg (“The Charade of the Paris Treaty,” June 17-18) laudably acknowledges the reality and gravity of anthropogenic climate change.  However, his piece contains several fallacies.

First, Lomborg correctly notes that the first round of pledges will fall far short of the stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius, and cites the failed Kyoto protocol as evidence for Paris’ likely failure, but he misconstrues the long-term logic of the agreement, as well as the way in which Paris is importantly different from Kyoto.  For one, every five years pledges are reviewed and ratcheted up, which aims to foster trust, cooperation, and peer pressure between parties and gradually build toward more ambitious targets.  For another, Kyoto had binding emissions cuts, whereas Paris has voluntary commitments in order to allow flexibility to account for countries’ political and economic feasibility constraints.

Second, Lomborg erects a straw man:  no one serious is claiming that we’re sailing into the solar paradise tomorrow.  The global energy economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat.  The point of Paris is to create a sea change in how countries think about climate:  to see it as deeply tied to their economic and geopolitical interests so that they begin to invest more in renewables and put a price on carbon.  Lomborg ignores the geopolitical dimension of Paris.  The Obama administrations’ most important strategic diplomatic achievement was to elevate climate to the same status as core issues in international cooperation, such as trade and security.

Take it from philosopher and policy analyst Andrew Light, who worked in the Obama Administration to craft and negotiate the Paris agreement:

Trump’s decision will damage U.S. integrity at the negotiating table and impede the ability of this White House to effectively pursue other international issues that require multilateral support. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, put it bluntly: “I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility” than leaving the Paris Agreement. It will also make it difficult for other leaders to justify to their citizens sitting down with this White House to negotiate anything the U.S. wants, given the broad and deep recognition of the need for cooperative action on climate change among other major powers.

In the new reality, if you’re a bad actor on climate, countries can leverage this against you and make it harder for you to get what you want on a range of issues.  Or punish you—France, e.g., has floated the idea of slapping a carbon tax on US imports.

Third, Lomborg descries subsidies for renewables.  What he fails to mention is that fossil fuel subsidies far exceed the former.  This should bother conservatives, since subsidies distort markets—the price of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost, which leads to an inefficient use of resources.  This is basic, uncontroversial, conservative economics.   And he should know, from reading energy historian Vaclav Smil, whom he cites, that no major energy transition has ever happened without massive government support.  Bizarrely, he concedes this toward the end of his piece, calling for increased spending on R and D; and indeed, one of the main goals of Paris is to stimulate such investment—hence billionaires such a Bill Gates rallying around the agreement and launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Fourth, Lomborg clings to the canard that action of climate is bad for the economy.  However, in his work he relies on a morally and economically dubious value for the social discount rate.  Even William Nordhaus, the dean of climate economics and a long time conservative on climate action, has conceded that he was wrong about the value he ascribed to the social cost of carbon.  And others, such as economist Nicholas Stern, claim that the cost should be much higher, which makes the price tag of eventual climate change much, much higher than the investments needed to decarbonize the global economy.  Again, the social cost of carbon is a fundamentally conservative idea:  individuals and firms ought to pay the full costs of the byproducts of their economic activity.  Economic growth is just one value among others, and it is unclear whether it is best fostered by weak climate policy.  Prudent investors hedge against risk.

Lomborg is right to claim that we must approach action on climate in the context of global issues such as education, health care, poverty, etc., and that, in the short term, investments in these areas would have a greater impact on welfare.  But he seems to assume that if we don’t direct resources to climate, they will indeed be devoted to these areas, which seems unlikely.  Moreover, a number of these issues are entangled with and may be exacerbated by climate change.  One reason e.g. that China and India are investing heavily in solar and decreasing their coal dependence is the costs of pollution to public health and their economies.

All told, Lomborg’s position—like the Journal’s editorial stance on climate in general and Paris in particular—is unserious, unconservative, and untenable.”

It seems to me that the winning strategy for climate advocacy is to craft arguments to appeal to 1) social conservatives and 2) economic conservatives.  How, in other words, to explain why Christianity and Capitalism logically lead to action on climate?

Don’t talk about the “environment,” talk about “creation.”

Don’t talk about “ecological balance,” talk about “economic growth.”

Don’t talk about “ecological destruction,” talk about “job creation.”

The language is jobs, infrastructure, investment, insurance, energy independence.

More later on the psychology, culture, and communication challenges of climate politics.

Clinton Kasich 2016: The Final Triangulation


I know.  It sounds crazy. But think about it.

First, let’s back up a bit.  I challenge anyone to disagree that the healthiest race for the country would have been Clinton vs. Kasich. Frankly, they were the only serious candidates ever in the race:  Christie was too mean (and fat); Paul too reasonable; Cruz too craven (and Christianist); Bush too Bush; Fiorina too shrill; Rubio too green (and thirsty); Carson spacey (and, like, generally ridiculous); Sanders too liberal (and grumpy); O’Malley too bionic; and Trump too…well, Trump.

By rights, Clinton and Kasich should have been facing off against each other. They would have likely run the cleanest, most idea-driven, and most issue-based campaigns possible in our sensationalist, sound-bitten era. They would have provided a breath of fresh-air after the silly season of the primaries. They would have been–they are–the most experienced, the most moderate, the most mature, the most qualified candidates. And that is why I think that they would make—that they should forge–the most formidable alliance to beat back and slay the monster that has somehow slithered into the American body politic.

Continue reading “Clinton Kasich 2016: The Final Triangulation”

Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why That’s a Good Thing (Part 5)


(Please begin with Part 1)

Now let’s look at the other candidates to see why they aren’t connecting as well as Trump, and where they fall on the worldview spectrum.


Jeb Bush:  Orange-Blue


When people describe Jeb as “low-energy” or remark upon his “slump-shouldered shrugging”, they are indicating that he does not resonate at Red.  He doesn’t have any fire in the belly, he does not relish the fight, and he does not project strength.  This is just what you would expect from a man who grew up as part of a wealthy political dynasty, glided through the Ivies, and led a privileged life.  Political leaders don’t need a Red center of gravity, but they need to know when and how to activate their Red core to inspire followers, cow political opponents, and crush enemies.  Red projects power, strength, and the willingness–even an eagerness–to use force.

Contrast Jeb’s countenance with that of Mitt Romney.  The reason Romney won the first debate with Obama in 2012 is because he was on the attack, he made Obama look weak, he enjoyed it, and he knew that that’s what voters wanted to see; Red never “apologizes” (especially for America) because Red does not recognize right and wrong; might makes right.  Yet when Jeb recently tried to talk tough and blunt like Trump, he looked foolish, not forceful; it wasn’t authentic.


Another way of saying this is that politicians like Jeb lack emotional intelligence.  Imagine Jeb with the square jaw, silver temples, killer instinct, winner mentality, photogenic family, private sector chops, and presidential timber of Romney–none of that would change the fact that his last name is Bush (Incidentally, Romney was what a GOP Presidential Candidate Generator algorithm would spit out, but ironically, this “Mr. Perfect” image made him seem hollow and robotic to voters; alas for the GOP, if he ran today, he would win the nomination and the election handily).  And anyone with good political instincts, or even just common sense, should see that the country will never elect another Bush.  He can add as many exclamation points as he wants to his logo–and even color it red!–but at the end of the day, he just doesn’t have the stuff.  We know it, and he knows it, but I don’t think he knows that we know it yet; otherwise, he would have the good sense to leave the race and endorse John Kasich (more on Kasich later).  I suspect he actually does not want the presidency that badly, but is pursuing it out of some sense of filial piety and familial duty:  to restore the family name burnished by his father and tarnished by his brother.



When you hear Jeb try to talk about “faith” and “family values,” you can hear that it is hollow and isn’t coming from the heart, but from the head. People can tell when you’re not one of them, when you’re pandering.  Contrast Jeb with his brother, who is Blue-Red (“shoot first, ask questions later”).  Though criticized ad nauseum for not being the sharpest tool in the shed (Orange), one reason Bush was able to connect with so-called values voters (Blue) was because he had a compelling “come to Jesus” personal story:  his own (Red) selfish desires were so strong that they almost destroyed his political future and neutralized all the advantages he’d been given in life.   These kinds of politicians–and these kinds of voters–demand and recognize moral absolutes in the world, and tend to suspect that the world order is always on the verge of collapsing into chaos.  Hence the positions:  strong military, strong family, strong faith.  Red is harnessed and channeled in the service of something greater:  God and country.  It was because George W. had a strong Red core that he had the presence of mind to mount the pile of still smoldering rubble and promise vengeance from a bullhorn, in possibly the most inspiring and memorable action of his presidency.  Can you picture Jeb doing that?



Jeb is a clear thinker, a policy wonk, and from all appearances was a competent caretaker as governor of Florida. For politicians like Jeb, politics is an energy drain and a distraction from the issues; “If we could just get done with all the irrational emotional stuff and get down to problem solving, then things would get better.”  This was a mistake that Orange-Green Obama made after taking office, thinking that he could drop the poetry of campaigning for the prose of governing, only to be blindsided by the GOP’s activation of the Blue-Red Tea Party.  Contrast Clinton, who relished the cut and thrust and bloodsport of politics, and who always had one eye on playing the people with the same skill as he played the saxophone.  Though, of course, Clinton’s lack of a Blue moral core made him prone to impulsive and irresponsible decisions; those without a strong Blue moral compass are prone to use orange rationalizing to achieve their egocentric desires (see Cheney, Dick).

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama remarked that you had to be kind of crazy to run for president.  It was an insightful piece of political psychology.  You have to be crazy in the sense that you have to have an unusually strong desire for power, and Jeb just doesn’t seem to want it that badly.  You almost get the sense, watching him onstage or on camera, that he’d rather be doing something else.  Orange politicians see Blue voters as masses to be pacified with patriotic platitudes so they can get on to the “real work” of policy and governing, and this is the impression you get from Jeb.  Right now, that just alienates voters; they get angry, which pushes them into Trump’s loving arms, where he receives their rage and channels it for them:  at Obama, at Washington, at establishment politicians, at immigrants, and so on.


All of which is to say that Bush is too Orange-centric to win the nomination and to be an effective leader at the national level, even discounting his bad name.

In Part 6, I will shift to the other end of the spectrum, where we find the “PPP”‘s–the Pandering Pastor Politicians–Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.

Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why That’s a Good Thing (Part 4)


(Please begin with Part 1)

So how is Trump leveraging the Spiral?  Why the gravity-defying poll numbers?

In my view, it is because he is firing on all the main cylinders of the Republican mind:  Red, Blue, and Orange–these are, quite simply, where the GOP brain hangs out.

Put another way:  Trump presents himself as a Bully, a Bigot, and a Businessman.

Red:  The Bully


Perhaps the most striking feature of Trump’s candidacy–and a key source of his appeal–is his almost total lack of respect for anyone else in the race or anyone covering it.  He does not let an event or appearance go by without sticking it to someone, and it is almost impossible for candidates or reporters to attack him.  When Trump chided Rand Paul during the debate, “You’re not doing so well tonight”–like he was kicking a wounded dog–that was pure Red.  Ands he told Jeb near the end of the first debate, we don’t have time for proper “tone.”  We need to “go out there and get the job done.”  And that is what Red does, without regard for rules or regulations, decency or decorum.  Red brings home the bacon.

But it does so only for its own sake–remember, Red is egocentric.  Red is concerned above all with the projection and acquisition of power:  getting it, keeping it, and thumping your chest to make sure everyone knows how much you have.  He surrounds himself with the spoils of financial war:  ostentatious wealth and beautiful women.  For a great case of Red, see Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street.  For a great explanation of Red and how Trump is channeling it, see Jeff Salzman’s analysis over at the Daily Evolver.

In projecting Red, Trump serves as a mouthpiece for the grievances, resentment, and sheer anger stewing among substantial swaths of the electorate:  anger at Obama, at the federal government, at Washington politicians, at the media, and even at monied elites like himself.  There are other candidates channeling Red–Cruz and Huckabee, for instance–but as I explain later, because they are stuck in a Blue box, they don’t give voters confidence that they can fix systemic problems, and their appeal will thus be restricted to social conservatives.

As Salzman notes, there is another key factor in the Red aspect of Trump’s appeal:  In the campaign context, Trump’s Red card is a Joker.  Like a stand-up comedian, the court jester deftly directs people’s attention to disturbing truths about the court by presenting them with humor.  By puncturing the “poll-tested pretensions” of the other candidates and mocking reporters and moderators, Trump shines the spotlight on the farcical foundations of presidential politics–and the media that covers and feeds it.


This is a natural role for Trump the reality TV star.  We all know “reality TV” is an oxymoron, we all sort of know that presidential politics is a kabuki dance, and more and more of us know now that our de jure democracy is a de facto plutocracy.  How fitting, then, that a reality TV star comes along to reveal the way in which politics has become a reality TV show.  He gets the camera to pan behind the scenes, to show voters what they already know but can’t quite believe:  that the game is basically rigged, and that the odds are not in their favor.  I’ll return to this later, since I think it is part of the reason that Trump’s success is, contrary to the views of many–including Hillary–a good thing for our political system.

Yet there is a dark side to Red.  Witness the savage beating a homeless man in Boston by thugs invoking Trump.  It reminded me of this scene from American Psycho, based on the novel about Wall Streeter Patrick Bateman, a finance something-or-other (winner) by day, serial killer of homeless people (losers) by night.

The dark Red psycho-cultural pot of racism and nativism Trump is stirring is probably going to spew some toxic stuff over the next year when mixed with the politics of immigration and the recent inflammation of racial tensions, whatever happens to his candidacy.

Blue:  The Bigot


If you looked at his personal life and the source of his wealth, you’d conclude that Trump would have a huge “Gomorrah Problem”:  the ex-wives, the decadance, the empire of sin, etc.  And to be fair, Blue is certainly Trump’s weakest link.  Yet he is nonetheless firing on Blue; less on religious identity, and more on racial and national identity.  The key to Blue is not necessarily religion, but group identity–a strong sense of membership in an extended community bonded by race, religion, or national identity.  Blue has a firm sense of boundaries and easily slips into an “Us vs. Them” mentality.  Hence, Trump is meeting his Blue quota with bombast about securing the border.  In doing so, he is stoking racist and nationalist fears.  As Timothy Egan puts it, he is willing to say “things that the darker elements of the GOP believe but rarely voice.”  I think the real forces driving the fears of many working class whites about the loss of jobs and a middle class life are global and sort of world-historical–technological and economic currents largely beyond the ability of the US or any country to seriously redirect.  But these abstractions aren’t useful scapegoats.  By concentrating the problem on a particular place–the border with Mexico–and on particular people–“dirty” and “dangerous” Mexican immigrants–Trump makes the problem definable and thus potentially solvable:  we just throw them out and build a wall to keep them out.  It gives the problem a place and a face.  Is it stupid, bigoted, and impossible?  Yes.  Is it effective framing?  You betcha.

Another place Trump is weak on Blue is the military and foreign policy.  Despite his embarrassing performance in an interview with Hugh Hewitt on foreign policy, Trump reassured us that “I’ll be so good on the military it will make your head spin.”  I predict that foreign policy will be Trump’s ultimate undoing.  When push comes to shove, voters won’t be willing to hand over the keys to a guy who sells slot machines.

Orange:  The Businessman


While Red is his strongest card in the trenches–at the knife fight level of politics–Orange is his best play at playing president. Orange is about winning–about coming out on top in the competition of the marketplace through talent, hard work, and grit, and so Trump’s reputation as a successful business leader stands him in good stead with Orange voters.  He knows how the economy works, he knows how to manage massive organizations, he knows how to make deals, he knows how to get things done, and so on.  And, of course, he wins.  And wins.  And wins.  I’ll have a great deal to say about the irony that the lion’s share of his winnings come from a game in which winning has nothing to do with talent and hard work, and everything to do with luck–and where the average player is guaranteed to lose, and the house always wins.  But for now, it seems clear that Trump’s business chops signal that as president, he’d be good for the economy.

So that gives us a sense for why Trump is doing so well–he is firing on all three major cylinders.


Finally, the Spiral is even woven into his campaign slogan (now trademarked–to trademark such as thing is, of course, trademark Trump):

Make (Orange):  America is a nation of makers (not takers), entrepreneurs, creators, visionaries, free enterprise, start-ups, self-reliant, rugged individuals.  Government must get out of the way to let people help themselves.

America (Blue):  We need a strong national identity, flag-waving patriotism, secure borders

Great (Red):  America should be the best, #1, top dog, the one great superpower, and we must “beat China” (or something)

Again (Red/Blue/Orange):  Trump’s proposition is that on all three levels, America is in decline.  Obama’s regulatory regime has hurt business and the entrepreneurial spirit (see “You didn’t build that”), catering to the takers, not the makers.  Obama is a cosmopolitan elite, a liberal internationalist who has made America look weak abroad, apologizing for America’s past mistakes (see Birthers), abandoning our allies (especially Israel), preferring diplomacy over military action, and compromising with (if not cow-towing toward) our enemies.  By not projecting Reaganic strength, he allows bullies to be bullies (see Putin, Vladimir).  And so on.

Of course it is all nonsense.  But that is the fantasy world of American conservatism that has emerged and congealed in the past decade or so, a world ruled by what Julian Sanchez dubbed “epistemic closure,” a world midwifed by Fox News.  Fox wants to arrest the Spiral, to insulate America from the modern world, to cling to an airbrushed, white bread image of American life from the ’50s and the ’80s, to, as William F. Buckley audaciously put it, “stand athwart history.”  As Bill Clinton put it in a commencement speech in 2010–in the wake of the rise of Tea Party–many of the cuckoo things going on in our politics nowadays are not what they seem; it’s a bunch of people on a train called the modern world hollering to be let off.  Fox News created the conditions for Donald Trump, and their failure to nip his candidacy in the bud in the targeted hit job of the first debate is coming back to bite them.  Connor Friedersdorf nails it:

hasn’t Fox News spent years conditioning viewers to believe that journalists belong to a condescending class of decadent elites which engages in barely-concealed conspiracies to destroy anyone who tells it like it is to real Americans? For years, Roger Ailes broadcast everything that Glenn Beck wrote on a chalk board! Surveying America for individuals whose insights he would broadcast to the masses, he settled on Sarah Palin as a person whose analysis he would amplify. It is no accident that a chunk of the Fox News audience is now inclined to side with Trump over Kelly. With Trump’s rise, the network is reaping what it has sown.

Trump is cut from the same cloth as Bill O’Reilly–they are both grade A assholes.  But Bill-O is a hired hand.  Trump cannot be controlled.  The clown is already out of the box.


Trump’s success isn’t just about what he is doing right, but what other candidates are doing wrong, or aren’t doing.  In Part 5, I will look at how his opponents are hazarding the Spiral.

Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why That’s a Good Thing (Part 3)


(Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first)

To see how Trump’s success can be explained by how he is leveraging the Spiral, we need to look at some of the dominant memes in American political culture:  Red, Blue, Orange, and Green.


Red:  Power


The Red meme is egocentric.  Historically, it emerged during hunter-gatherer times, when tribes came into conflict or needed to bind together in order to survive and were united by strong, powerful leaders who instilled fear, garnered respect, and got people to do their bidding.  Red seeks control through the exercise of power, often through force or intimidation.  It is what comes out when we get into a fight with our partner and say things we later regret or “didn’t mean”; it is the raw expression of anger, frustration at “not getting my way.”  In disputes, Red seeks not just to win–to be on top–but to conquer–to put others down.  When wronged, it seeks not justice, but revenge.  In fact, Red does not think there is any justice in the world; people are inherently self interested, and social order is maintained only through the fear of punishment.  Red sees the world as dog eat dog, “red in tooth and claw”; the only way to get ahead in life is through force and fraud.  Only suckers play by the rules.

Key values are control, strength, power.

Examples:  the terrible twos, the schoolyard bully, Achilles, prima donna athletes, Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, horrible bosses, the Joker, most of the characters on Game of Thrones, and of course, Donald Trump.

The world is divided into the strong and the weak.

Blue:  Traditional


Blue is ethnocentric.  It sees the social world as a hierarchy of clearly prescribed roles governed by rigid rules.  Here, the individual’s identity is determined by his or her social role and membership in the community.  This is a corrective to Red:  the dangerous desires of the individual must be checked and harnessed for social good; a classic example is the medieval knight of courtly romance, whose destructive potential must be sublimated in the service of society.  For Blue, the cosmos is regarded as the ordered plan of a personal God who determines good and evil.  Blues tend to see the world in black and white, us vs. them, absolutistic terms.  Blue is the platform for patriotism and nationalism; “protecting the homeland” is Blue language, and it is no accident it became prevalent after 9-11, when Red Islamic Terrorism struck at the heart of the country.

Key values are loyalty, humility, sacrifice, and a strong emphasis on law and order.

Examples:  the military, the police, social conservatives, the Catholic church.

The world is divided into saints and sinners.

Orange:  Modern 


Orange is world-centric and holds a cosmopolitan outlook.  People find their identity as free and equal human beings, first and foremost, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sex, ability or nationality.  Orange tends to see the world as a free market of individuals using their talents and labor to compete and engage in exchange for mutual benefit to attain the most optimal distribution of resources.  When Margaret Thatcher said “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals,” she was speaking Orange.  Where Blue is aristocratic–social rank is determined by birth, tradition, and rules of inheritance–Orange is meritocratic.  Orange tends to prefer limited government:  the sole job of the government is to protect individuals rights, particularly their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as defined by the individual–not the State, the Church, or any other external authority.  Orange tends to be materialistic rather than moralistic:  it does not place as much emphasis on character formation as Blue; what matters is that one shouldn’t physically harm others.  Orange is thus the father of classical liberalism, the political DNA of modern societies.  Likewise, Orange is the home of empiricism and the scientific method,  basing knowledge on experience, not tradition; it is thus skeptical of religious authorities.  It cares about what works.  It prioritizes progress, particularly scientific and technological progress.  Orange “thinks for itself.”

Key values are freedom, independence, adaptability, innovation, experimentation, conscientiousness.

Examples:  businessmen, scientists, Ayn Rand, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Donald Trump.

The world is divided into winners and losers.

Green:  Postmodern


The Green sensibility came on the scene in the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s.  Green has a deep distrust of any kind of centralized authority, institutional hierarchy, or mainstream establishment.  It tends to see these as power structures created to oppress people, e.g., “the Man”  Mindful that history is often written by the winners, Green rejects “Master Narratives” in favor of “Slave Narratives”; one example is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which overturns the Founding Fathers-as-demigods story and points out how the country was built on the slaughter of native Americas.  In general, Greens tend to be highly critical of the United States, particularly the military and big business.  It seeks community as a reaction to the alienation brought on by Orange individualism, and has a deep yearning for existential meaning as a reaction to Orange materialism.  The phrase “identity politics” is a Green phenomenon:  it means that individuals see themselves first as members of a particular group–women, gays, Christians–rather than as individual citizens.  Green sees modernity as an artificial environment that has removed us from–and despoiled–Mother Nature.  It wants to go back to the land and live organically:  When Joni Mitchell sings, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot,” that is a Green lyric.  Green prioritizes cultural sensitivity and the inclusion of marginalized groups:  gays, racial minorities, Muslims, etc.  It also goes beyond Orange in extending the circle of moral concern to nonhuman animals and the environment.  It thinks from a global and ecological perspective, tending to focus on what is wrong with the world, and prefers international over national solutions to global problems.  “Think globally, act locally” is a Green slogan.

Key values are tolerance, inclusivity, equality, sensitivity.

Examples:  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, hippies, environmentalists, New Agers, Occupy Wall Street.

The world is divided into oppressors and oppressed.

So how do these memes help us understand the culture wars, presidential politics and, ultimately, Trump’s success?

Continue reading “Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why That’s a Good Thing (Part 3)”

Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why That’s a Good Thing (Part 2)


(Please read Part 1 first)

So why is Trump winning?


One way to understand precisely how he is doing it is with the help of a little-known theory called Spiral Dynamics.  Spiral Dynamics is a theory of cultural development pioneered by psychologist Clare Graves in the 1970s, developed and applied by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in the 80s in apartheid in South Africa, and adapted by Ken Wilber in his Integral Theory in the 2000s.  And just to reassure you that I am not pulling this out of left field:  when Al Gore was asked to name his favorite philosopher during the 2000 campaign, his answer was “Ken Wilber” (Bush’s was “Jesus”), and Clinton has quoted Wilber’s work at Davos.  Many politicians at the highest levels know about and use these frameworks.

The atomic unit of the theory is the “meme.”  The theory holds that throughout history, human beings have responded to the challenges of surviving and living together by evolving different memes–forms of consciousness and culture.  Each meme is a creative response to life conditions, an organizing structure that helps people make sense of themselves, their place within the social order, and humanity’s place within the natural world.  In short:  a meme is a worldview–a vision of the way the world is–and a value system–a vision of the way the world should be.  It is a mental and moral matrix that shapes consciousness and culture.

8 Different Views of Life

The notion of memes–ideas that are rapidly transmitted from individual to individual, like a virus replicating itself–has become a mainstay of cultural theory and pop sociology, but Spiral Dynamics applies the concept in developmental terms.  Memes unfold in a predictable and developmental fashion; they are like waves or stages in the evolution of consciousness and culture.  A meme emerges because it solves certain problems, performs critical functions, and fills certain needs for individuals and cultures within a particular historical, environmental, economic, and technological context–for awhile.

But when conditions change and new problems of living arise, a new worldview and value system emerges in order to make sense of the new world order, and the old one is displaced.  The latter does not disappear; it continues to play an important part in the life of the individual and the culture, and it is recruited and activated at key times, but it is no longer the “center of gravity.”  An analogy to the Spiral is Maslow’s needs hierarchy; the rungs on the bottom levels don’t disappear once moves to a new one–you still need to eat!–but they are no longer the main goal of life.

This is the Spiral:


A few things are worth pointing out.

First, there is nothing essential about the colors (though some of them are obviously intuitively appropriate:  Red is prone to impulsive rage, and Green is a lover of Nature).

Second, these are not types of people; they are types in people.  Every person–like every culture–is a unique mosaic of multiple memes that ebb and flow.  But people do tend to have a center of gravity that acts as their default setting.  Different situations call forth different elements.

Third, no meme is inherently good or bad:  each has healthy and pathological expressions.  Though, as I explain below, the fuel of the culture wars is the friction between the memes; in general, a new meme tends to demonize the one before it, highlighting its weaknesses while ignoring its strengths (while also being blind to its own weaknesses).

Fourth, no meme is “better” than another in an absolute sense; each has a unique and necessary role to play.  However, problems arise when one meme attempts to dominate at the expense of others and deny them their relative truth and proper place in life.  Hence, Spiral Dynamics holds that there is a kind of evolutionary progress:  perspectives that include and integrate more perspectives are better–they acknowledge and encompass more of reality.  Only in that qualified sense can one perspective be said to be “better” than another.

Finally, the memes track both individual and cultural development.  In the Middle Ages, for instance, the center of gravity was Blue, but each individual had to go through all the stages; e.g., no one gets to skip the “terrible twos” (Red).

In Part 3, I sketch the contours of four of them since they help explain our political culture in general and Trump’s rise in particular:  Red, Blue, Orange, and Green.

Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why that’s a Good Thing (Part 1)


The question on everyone’s mind is this:  How is Donald Trump winning?  Why is he winning?  And how long is he going to keep on winning?  What few people–other than his supporters–seem to be considering is how this might be a good thing.

Despite a history of derogatory public remarks towards and about women–in an age when one tone-deaf Tweet can destroy a political career–he polls well with them.

Despite a coordinated attempt to sink his candidacy in the first debate by Fox News–the visible hand of conservative voters’ thinking–his support has only grown stronger.

Despite the conventional wisdom that the GOP needs to court Hispanic voters, he promises to build “the greatest wall you’ve ever seen” to keep out Mexican “murderers, drugs, and rapists.”

Despite Lord Reagan’s “11th Commandment” that thou shall not speak ill of another another Republican, he declares that senior statesman, former GOP presidential nominee, and Vietnam veteran and torture victim John McCain is “not a war hero.”

Despite being previously pro-choice, twice divorced, and the overseer of an empire of sin, he glides through the moral gauntlet.

Despite having funded liberal candidates and causes–at a time when ideological purity tests have become the norm in conservative politics–he keeps on attracting conservatives.

Despite an almost total lack of policy positions on his website or in his speeches, people are flocking to him.

Despite all this, he keeps on winning.

Of course, he hasn’t actually won anything yet, and despite his incessant boasting, he does not win all the time.  A number of explanations have been given for Trump’s temporary triumph:  he is entertaining, he is blunt, he tells the truth, he is not a politician, he’s a successful businessman, he is who he is, he dishes out populist pablum aplenty, and more.  I don’t think any of these are wrong, but I think there is a more elegant, satisfying, and comprehensive explanation for why he striking such a chord with so many people.

Put simply, Trump is speaking to people on multiple levels simultaneously in a way none of the other candidates are.  Just as the greatest gift the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest gift a politician can every pull is to talk down to voters while making them think he’s not; to make everyone think he is taking directly to them, personally, at the same time he talking to everyone else; to make them feel empowered even when he knows they are going to get screwed.  Call it inspiring condescension, call it parallel processing, call it what you want:  whether by instinct or design, Trump has assembled the perfect rhetorical ingredients to win the ears of a stunning swath of voters.  Trump may not be a “career politician,” and he has convinced voters he is not a politician, but he is a gifted politician.

But what exactly are those ingredients, and why are they the right ones?  To answer those questions, we need to look at a little-known but, in political circles, widely used theory of cultural development called Spiral Dynamics.  Check out Part 2 to find out what it is and how Trump is leveraging it.


(photos courtesy of, and flickr,

The Climate Candidate: Al Gore 2016


In the wake of the recent waves of news regarding the recent EPA regulations and the National Climate Assessment report, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change and American politics, and yesterday, a crazy idea popped into my head.  I googled “Gore 2016” and, lo and behold, found that Mark Halperin, of Game Change fame, had recently floated the idea on “Morning Joe” a few weeks ago:

When you start to really think about it, it makes a whole hell of a lot of sense.  

Continue reading “The Climate Candidate: Al Gore 2016”

The Great Grad School Debate

Over at, a sort of fun interactive infographic with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” decision tree to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school:

The question of graduate school isn’t really one question, since grad school is said in many ways:  there are worlds of difference between grad school in the humanities, in law, and in business, for instance.  In contrast to the infographic, I am going to talk here exclusively about grad school in the humanities.

Continue reading “The Great Grad School Debate”