The Conservative Commune: Finding Commonalities in an Uncommon World

Somewhere in the rural, mountainous countryside of the Pacific Northwest, there is an organic kale farm situated on a commune. This kale farm is 100% organic and self-sustaining. It is run by a gang of tie-dye wearing, dread growing, 20-something-year-olds “hippies” who left their previous lives because they felt the call of a simpler, more sustainable existence. These farmers sell their kale to the local organic food store, which then sells it to community members for their post-yoga smoothies. On the weekends, the yoga goers, market owners, and kale farmers meet at the local coffee shop to drink fair trade organic coffee. Everyone is friendly and loving and sees the value in self-expression and doing what you love. While they sit sipping their coffee, they vent to each other about how the big corporations are ruining the environment. They talk about how capitalistic greed is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and how far our nation still has to go before we consider all races, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations equal in the eyes of the law and one another. They’ve never voted for a Republican in their lives and attribute our problems to the “heartless conservatives” who are setting back valuable progress, and only dream of a world where liberal policy reins king.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the farmland of Nebraska, a middle-aged man wipes the sweat from his brow after a long day of work harvesting the corn his family has been growing on their homestead for four generations. Corn farming is all he has ever known; his father was a farmer, his father’s father was a farmer, and his grandfather’s father was a farmer. Every night, after a long days work, he comes home to his family and eats a steak cut from the local butcher who buys from the cattle farm in town. After dinner, he meets his friends from the farm bureau at the local bar where they vent about how corporations like Monsanto are destroying the American farmer. They are collectively frustrated with the elites in Washington who don’t seem to do anything but bicker and waste their hard-earned tax dollars. They may not have a fancy degree, but their inherited folk wisdom has worked for as long as they can remember and don’t see much use in changing it now.   They’ve worked hard their whole life and never complained once. They’ve never voted for a Democrat, and despise the “millennial and liberals” who’d rather have something handed to them than to work for it, and only dream of a world where hard-working, common sense conservatives ran the country.

Conventional wisdom and popular thought has pitted these groups against each other. Each is the cause for the problems we face in this country, and if only the other thought as they do, the country would be a better place. These two groups exist in separate worlds that will probably never intertwine, making it all too easy to press blame without a second thought. They think they have nothing in common with each other, from the clothes they wear to the morals they teach their children to the politicians they support. But what if their paths were to cross and they were able to break down the barriers of appearance and have a conversation; what would that look like?

 

*****

 

After the harvest of this season’s kale, the hippies decide to celebrate by embarking on a cross-country road trip, starting in the Northwest and ending in Brooklyn, where one of their friends owns a community garden and co-op. They pack their Subaru with the necessities and head off, excited to experience the natural beauty of this country.

After spending a night in Grand Teton National Park, they spend the day driving east with plans to lay their hats wherever they feel is a good spot. As the sun sets and the moon rises, they pull into a small farm town in Nebraska, looking for a place to grab a quick bite to eat. Although complaints are circulating the car about being in a drive-through state that only cares about corn and Corn Huskers football, they see no choice but to stop. To their disappointment, they find no organic foods store, but rather, a local bar and restaurant boasting of having “the best corn on the cob and hamburger in Nebraska”. They walk in and are greeted by stares from a group of rugged looking men sitting at the bar. Out-of-towners aren’t too frequent there, so seeing anyone they didn’t recognize was strange, let alone a group of dread-headed hippies. But not to be evaded by their Midwestern hospitality, the group of travelers is greeted warmly and their order is taken. Both groups sneak condescending looks and muddle sarcastic remarks amongst themselves, bringing themselves closer together and the other farther apart. However, their comments are unthreatening, if not harmless, and both groups mind their own business and go about their separate lives.

That is, until one of the local farmers overhears the hippies talking about a piece of news they read about a corporation that is using GMO’s and its deep pockets to take over the Midwestern farmland, in turn bankrupting the local farmer. He hears the disgust in their voice and strikes up a conversation about how him and his friends at the bar are the ones being directly effected by this. Both groups start talking, and a strange thing starts to happen: they find that they are more similar than different. They both believe that supporting local businesses is better than buying from corporate superstores. They both work on farms and have an appreciation for and connection to the land. They both know where their food comes from and who cultivated it. They talk about how bad the influence of money in Washington has gotten and how the everyday person is being left behind. They both care deeply about their friends, family, and community, and believe it’s their job to look after one anther—because if they don’t, no one will. And finally, they talk about the importance of being a good person and living true to your morals.

The groups end up staying until bar close, leaving the place laughing and poking fun at how ridiculous at each other’s appearances are, as old friends would do. Before heading back to their separate lives, they finish with a handshake and well wishes on their respective journeys. While the famers will still never vote for a Democrat and the hippies will still never vote for a Republican, they feel as if they gained a sense of perspective, and more importantly, a new set of friends.

In a world with a “with us or against us” mentality, demonizing the other has become all too easy. Empathy is seldom considered or employed, partly because we surround ourselves with like minds, and partly because it causes us to reflect on ourselves. We’ve thought one way our whole life and it’s worked just fine; why would we need to empathize with a “dirty hippie” or a “Midwestern farmer”? Because when we do, we find that people are people, and no matter what part of the country—or the world—they come from, and there are certain morals and values that transcend borders and are rooted not in town, state, or nation, but are rooted in human goodness.

The current divide in our nation is deep-rooted and destructive. If we ever wish to heal our wounds, we must decide to embrace the good in one another rather than dwelling on our differences; change doesn’t happen in a presidential debate, it happens in the everyday interactions of regular people who still believe in E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.

 

-MB

Advertisements

The Societal Effect of an Undervalued Liberal Arts Education

“You’re a political science and sociology major? Good luck getting a job!”

There is a persisting sentiment of condescension towards the liberal arts on college campuses across the nation. With a globalized economy that is deeply cemented in the advent and advancement of digital technology, the perception of a liberal arts education that of an antiquated, obscure subsection of academia which houses the crazies who are more concerned with theoretical impracticalities than tangible ‘real world’ issues. Areas of study based in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) subjects are considered to be far more valuable and appealing to potential employers and the public than those based in the social sciences. And this trend is not completely without merit—to thrive in this economy we must have people who are dedicated to math and the physical sciences that will further the pursuit of efficiency and a better connected world. Further, people educated in business, STEM, and medicine can create solutions to tangible, specific complex problems that our world is facing better than someone educated in the social sciences. Notwithstanding, the lack of legitimacy that is awarded to the social science disciplines has the potential to be disastrous to the future of our society. To put it more acutely—there is greater utility in a liberal arts education than anyone wants to admit.

What separates a liberal arts education from the subjects mentions in the former is that their focus lies chiefly within the specialized skills associated with the subject (coding, accounting, physical therapy, mechanical engineering, etc..) while the focus of a liberal arts education lies almost exclusively within the approach to the acquisition of knowledge and worldly understanding. This is not to say that the liberal arts don’t teach specific skills; I have learned about the inner working of campaign finance, the process of public opinion polling, the causation of social stratification, and the empirical effect of public policies put into action. However, what I have derived as being most valuable about my education is that I have a true understanding of how to approach knowledge and ideas to find what is important and translate that to a practical use. Why do I find this so crucial? Because without it, we are too easily susceptible to influences that are adverse to the interests of ourselves and the interests to our society as a whole. We lack the ability to decipher the merits and pitfalls of ideas and are vulnerable to malicious intellectual, societal, and political takeover. No example seems more poignant than our current domestic and international political climate.

It is no secret that many political establishments around the globe are experiencing extraordinary, normative beliefs-changing turbulence. The frightening increase in the frequency of terror attacks around the globe from a more complex and decentralized terrorism system, the international migrant and domestic immigration question, the dereliction of nations from super-national governing bodies, and the splintering partisanship along with the redefinition of ideological lines have all been contributing factors to the rise in anger and dissatisfaction of the average citizen in America and abroad. And instead of working to unite the public and approach our problems with a pragmatic solution, we have leaders that are stoking our fears through the blatant and conscious distribution of misinformation that only compounds our problems, not alleviates them. How is this beneficial to the betterment of our society? What goal is this accomplishing? If a certain faction blocks a congressional bill that would objectively good for our nation for the sole reason of political affiliation, what is intended outcome or purpose? Congrats, you won! Your reward? A polarized political climate, populist anger, horrible job approval rates, widespread distrust due to widespread lies, and more work for you. Why would someone not only prefer, but also actively work to create a system like this? It seems so incredibly counterintuitive and unappealing that I have a hard time coming to grasps with this reality.

However, a large piece of a liberal arts education is taking an objective look at an issue, identifying the root of the problem, understanding the historical factors that helped create the problem, and figuring out a way to efficiently solve it while providing clear lessons and chronology for those who might an encounter similar problems in the future. Due to the foregoing, I am not ignorant to reasons we are here. I attribute my, and many others, existential recognition of this problem to a liberal arts education. During my tenure, I was taught not to blindly believe what is preached without diligently dissecting the merits of the point. I was taught how to understand psychological and conscious biases and guard myself against their influences. I was taught to view politics and society not as a closed room that fully encompasses every possible idea that can be thought of, but rather as an open field that encourages merited discourse as a tool of social advancement.

I have been lucky enough to have been taught this in my undergraduate education; unfortunately, the majority of the general public has not had the same opportunity  to share in my prerogative. To no fault of his or her own, many people have either not had the privilege to obtain a formal education, or chosen to focus on a different subject where this thought process is not an integral part of the curriculum. As a result, there is a serious void of constructive public discourse, deep scrutiny of groupthink mentality, factual accountability for our public figures, and the perceived value of compromise. What is most disheartening about all of this is that, as a public, we are generally cognizant that these issues exist. Congressional approval ratings are under or around 10%, a majority of the population think this country is headed in the wrong direction, and there is deep mistrust of our political system. The issue doesn’t lie within our ability to recognize, it lies within views on how to solve it. And so, we march forward with utter confidence, drowning ourselves in the white noise of party politics, meritless arguments, and the inability or will to take a scientific approach to something we don’t conventionally consider science; our well being.

There is, however, a way to solve our unique predicament.  (1) As a society we must embrace- or at the very least acknowledge- the importance of a population educated in the liberal arts and social sciences. This doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of other field; that would be contradictive to the core principals of a liberal education.  Rather, extent that same importance to liberal arts subjects as well.  Instead of streamlining young students into fields that earn the highest salary, expose them equally to the world of social sciences through a more diversely focused educational curriculum that demonstrates the legitimate societal value of all academic subjects.  (2) We have to normalize the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of the social sciences. Once it becomes normalized, the market, which serves as a tangible and monetary reflection of our values, will reward the new generations of social scientists with higher overall income and more visible merit recognition. One of the biggest discouraging factors for students interested in the social sciences is their legitimate fear of unemployment after graduation. Once we understand the intangible value, we can start assigning tangible value. (3) When our liberally-educated social science students matriculate into the economy, we must put their education to good use by imparting it’s important lessons on the public. That involves curbing the trend of telling people what to think about certain issues, and replacing it with an education of the philosophical ways and methods of thinking, then presenting them with the facts of a current issue, which they now have to tools to dissect.  Once our public internalizes this new way of thinking, we can engage in productive public discourse, champion truthful and beneficial governing practices, and start well on our way to living in a better world.

-MB

The Disillusion of Modern American Exceptionalism

I want to start off this essay by admitting that I am both vastly under qualified and justly qualified to write on this topic. I am 21-year-old undergraduate college student that holds no education further than a few upper level political science classes, some months traveling abroad and reading done on my own. Hell- I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the last Presidential election. However, I, and many others hold a qualification that gives me not only a right, but an obligation to write on this: I am voting American. It is the duty of every American voter to understand the challenges that face our nation and aid in finding a solution. If we see a serious problem in our government, we have the power to make the necessary changes. Our nation is currently experiencing crippling gridlock and divide that has realigned the electorate’s goal from working towards ever-constant improvement of the once greatest Nation in the world, to the disillusioned civil war between two parties who’d rather die of starvation than share the kitchen. This is not the American way. We are living in a country that has internalized a misguided concept of American exceptionalism that is counter-intuitive to very ideal it represents. This essay will work to identify the problems with the current practice of our pseudo-exceptionalism and try to identify a pragmatic solution that can be embraced by all Americans and bring us back to the country we know it can be.

The concept of American exceptionalism is the belief that America is the best country in the world and that our values are the most noble; so much so that we must work to spread them to every corner of the world. This belief has been present in our country since our inception. Early settlers attempted to westernize the Native Americans and rid them of their ‘savage’ ways. Americans pioneers felt is was their manifest destiny to extend the reaches of the nation from sea to shining sea. The United states has engaged in almost every major conflict overseas because we feel that it is our duty fight against powers that threaten the American way, even if they it has no direct effect on domestic life. Because of this, we have grown to the world power that we are today. However, this ideal is by no means negative. America has fought for freedom for countries controlled by strict dictators, been at the forefront of revolutionary technological advances, and have created a nation that truly believes in and promotes the opportunity for success. In that sense, American exceptionalism isn’t a belief, but a truth and a force for good. We were proud of our accomplishments, but never settled for the status quo. We believed in our leaders and knew that they were looking out for the interests of the people, not themselves or their party. Americans had a jovial opulence that radiated from the beaches of California to the skyscrapers of New York. Unfortunately, this is not the American exceptionalism we have come to know today. Fearful of attacks and slander, we have come to know a brand of American exceptionalism where we are incapable of admitting our own fallibility in order to preserve our party’s image and take down the other. If we cannot admit our own mistakes, how can we expect to make substantive change in a broken system?

If you look at the infrastructure of any successful company or team, you will find a constant principle: self-evaluation and constant improvement. Companies are always looking for ways to improve on their past performances through a process of reflection. Silicon Valley, the mecca of technological innovation and progress, takes great pride in the process of trial and error. The more you fail, the more opportunity you have for success. If an idea doesn’t work, you acknowledge its shortcomings and make the necessary changes it needs to be a success. Admittance of failure isn’t shamed, but rather celebrated because there is an understanding that failing and self-evaluation is part of the process. Similarly, if a previously dominant sports team is in a slump, do they continue in their ways? No. They identify what they are doing wrong and make the necessary changes to get on their track of previous success. Knowing this, why does our nations leadership seem to ignore this process?

To be clear, when referring to this idea of self-evaluation, I do not include critiques from the individual on the nation by placing sole blame on the beliefs of the opposite party. This isn’t evaluation for the sake of progress, instead it is critiques aimed at questioning the competency of the individual. That is not to say that we cannot make legitimate critiques on the decisions of our leaders who the rightful fault is owed–in fact that is encouraged. The issue comes when we forego facts and place all blame on the opposition, so much so it blinds our ability credit them with legitimate successes that they experience. The unfortunate reality is that our leaders in our political system seldom admit personal wrongdoings for issues facing our nation; “it is never our own fault, but rather the fault of someone else”. If there is an issue in our country, it is because of the decisions that come from the other side of the aisle. Much of this can be equated to the two-party system and the inescapable reality that politicians must have public support for get reelected so they can maintain their employment. Our political system has become so partisan and our political rhetoric is so outwardly focused that the only way to survive is to assimilate to this faulty style of governance. Republicans outwardly assign all problems in our country to the decisions of President Obama without the willingness to congratulate his legitimate successes or even exercise the idea that policies implemented by a president take decades to fully manifest, and maybe some of the issues we are currently experiencing could have been the result of past leadership. Similarly, Democrats hold on to their lofty, ideologically driven policies without the ability to acknowledge the economical impractically of implementing such policies, and then blame the republicans when they fail. As a result, critiquing the decisions of our nation is perceived not as an attempt to improve on an already great system, but rather an attack on the American way and a faulting love and belief in our values. Our politicians are unable to admit fault without experiencing detrimental backlash to their public image and career as a whole. This brand of misguided American exceptionalism not only hinders our ability to soar to the great heights our country is capable of, but is harmful to the very principle it is seemingly trying to protect. How can we expect to grow, as a nation if we cannot do honest, public self-evaluations where we admit we are our judgment could’ve been better and look to the every American for new ideas without being ridiculed for our mistakes? We should be valuing are politicians as we do CEO’s inventors, musicians and athletes on their ability to learn from their mistakes and grow from them, not cutting them down for it.

So how do we change this system that we are currently stuck in? The first step may seem trivial and insignificant, but I believe it lies within the ability to empathize with people of dissenting opinions. It is no secret that our two political parties have different theories on successful governance. These theories reflect the inherent values they find important in a society they wish to live in. And while these theories and values may differ, each has the same goal: shaping a nation that provides its citizens with the rights and opportunities that are universal to mankind. Contrary to common rhetoric, it is ignorant to believe that either party has the goal of ruining this country with their policies; each believes that what they are doing is the right way to achieve the common goal and to believe otherwise is ignorant. However, for better or for worse, the reality is that we have a system that requires cooperation and compromise across the aisle. Therefore, we must employ empathy if we wish to make substantial change to our broken system. Sun Tzu famously said “to defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy”. It is not my intention to lay claim that the ‘other’ party is the enemy (though that statement wouldn’t be far off in the eyes of the public) but rather to apply this point to policy making. It is imperative to understand why someone believes what he or she does before fully discounting his or her claim. As mentioned before, everyone has a the same goal they’re working towards, so by understanding why someone believes what they do and acknowledging the validity of their intent, we can hold a rationally driven debate on the merits of each opinion and work to find some middle ground that accomplished the common goal. Not only does this practice make debates more efficient, but also it humanized the competitor and fosters productive relationships that can pay dividends in the future. This idea of empathy may seem insignificant and trivial in comparison to other issues facing our nation, but it undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

If, as a nation, we collectively decide to embrace this paradigm shift–applaud our leaders when they admit wrongdoing, reward empathetic debate and condemn crippling partisanship, we can start on the path that leads us back to true embodiment of our previously practiced American exceptionalist ways.

 

-MB