Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for September 2015

Live Free or Don’t

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Back in 2010, the Wikipedia entry for double bind contained this text, which has since been edited out:

  • “You must be free!”
    Freedom is the ability to be spontaneous and do whatever you want; to be told that you must do this means that you are conforming to a commandment ordering you to express a state of freedom.
    (An extreme example of this is the New Hampshire state slogan, “Live Free Or Die”, which also veers into the realm of Hobson’s choice).

I had seen the New Hampshire motto on license plates since I was a kid. I had never thought of it as a double bind. What’s going on here?

The key is that “Live Free or Die” is a motto: a statement in the first person of how one wants to live. I am saying that I intend to live free or die.

However, if you interpret it as an imperative command — “You live free or die” — then you do get the aspects of a double bind that the writer cites.

I can’t help with the assertion that it approaches a Hobson’s choice. I can’t understand that claim at all, unless both living free and dying are negative outcomes.

It had never occurred to me to interpret “Live free or die” as an injunction to a second person. It shows how far apart different people can get with the same statement when they have different starting points. It also illustrates how an idea can be interpreted in ways that one might not expect.




Written by srojak

September 25, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Ethics, Politics

Tagged with ,

Historical American Cultural Blind Spots

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Any collection of people that develops an identity and a culture necessarily becomes better at responding to some stimuli than to others. Having a focus means that you direct your attention to some matters at the expense of others. A culture will include biases: preferences of focus toward some concerns and away from others.

That spot covers up some fact, which if it were taken into account, would check the vital movement that the stereotype provokes. If the progressive had to ask himself, like the Chinaman in the joke, what he wanted to do with the time he saved by breaking the record, if the advocate of laissez-faire had to contemplate not only free and exuberant energies of men, but what some people call their human nature, if the collectivist let the center of his attention be occupied with the problem of how he is to secure his officials, if the imperialist dared to doubt his own inspiration, you would find more Hamlet and less Henry the Fifth. For these blind spots keep away distracting images, which with their attendant emotions, might cause hesitation and infirmity of purpose. Consequently the stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.
— Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, chapter VIII.

Something Shiny Just Went By

If America cannot win a war in a week, it begins negotiating with itself.
— William Safire

With our tradition of popular sovereignty, we avoid the deficiencies of aristocracies. However, we also lose the staying power, discipline and focus on interests that aristocracies do well.

To mobilize people, there must be a compelling issue. However, that which is immediately compelling is not necessarily the most important or the most strategic. A kind of tyranny of the urgent takes over where nothing is paid due attention unless it is on fire and people’s attention can be distracted by a simmering problem that has long-term consequences by a cat falling into a well.


The Americans have contrived to be surrounded on two sides by weak neighbors and on two sides – by fish!
— Bismarck

We in this country have a great physical situation, and I am grateful for it. We dominate a horizontal slice of a continent, from one side to the other. Our border with Canada is the longest unfortified national boundary in the world. We don’t have to worry about what neighbors causing trouble. Our domestic economy is enormous and the dollar is currently the common trading currency of the world.

The problem is that, because we typically don’t have to worry about what the rest of the world is up to, we tend to remain ignorant of it. Then at the times when the outside world does intrude on our lives, we don’t have an adequate frame of reference so we respond simplistically. That wasn’t a problem in the era of Pearl Harbor, when there was adequate time to color and shade our image of the world while still marshaling our efforts to obtain victory. But in Vietnam, our black-white cognitive simplicity was not adequate to allow us to function effectively.

Launch Bias

People and organizations in the United States tend to notice launches but not returns, starts but not finishes, beginnings but not endings. We all know careers are made in flashy launches, the manager gets promoted out, and someone else picks up the pieces. We all know managers who judge people by what they have recently announced, not by what they have recently completed.
— Richard Tabor Greene, Global Quality, p. 112

In this country, we are attracted to the start of a program or effort. It is when the big speeches are made and the attention-getting actions occur. But as the effort wears on with nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears, it becomes tiresome. The previously cited preference for the splashy and flashy plays up and attention moves on to the next big announcement. The emphasis on the existing effort fades.

It is not uncommon for people to hear all kinds of initiatives being started in their workplaces, with most destined to fizzle out before any of the benefits are achieved. People’s attention moves on to the next crisis or the next big initiative. Often the chaos of daily events randomize people’s attention. For one reason or another, we learn not to expect follow-through.

Winning the War and Losing the Peace

By design, it takes a lot of effort to bring the country to war. Our constitution reserves to the Legislature the authority to declare war. The entire nation must be mobilized for war; the attention of the country focuses on the clear and present danger.

But when the shooting is over, the country often wants to be done, to return to ordinary business. There is an unwillingness to pay attention to the problems that are unresolved by the war. The emergency is over and we want to go back to living our lives.

By 1880 the planting aristocracy had settled down to habits not unlike those that characterized it in 1860. Contrary to the widely held view, there was no significant breakup of the plantation system during and after reconstruction. Day labor, renting and sharecropping were innovations, to be sure, but those occupying such lowly positions bore a relationship to the planter that, while it was not slavery, was nevertheless one of due subordination in every conceivable way. The role of the planter remained that of paternal despot, controlling the destiny of his many wards and determining the social position of all, including those having little or no connection with agriculture.
— John Hope Franklin, Reconstruction after the Civil War, p. 212

Reconstruction was a classic example of this tendency in action. Emancipation had removed the legal fact of slaveholding, but had left a glut of unskilled labor. The planter families who kept their wits about them soon found that they had a powerful position due to their land, capital and social standing in their communities. They were the people who had the collateral, the respectability and the process knowledge to walk into a bank and get a loan.

Blacks and poor whites at the subsistence level had none of these things and did not have the resources to get through a crop season unaided. They had to borrow to pay the landowner for the right to work the land and to pay the local store for tools and foodstuffs to get through to the harvest. They were a captive market to both and, having no access to cash, had to work with lenders who would accept payment in kind. By 1880, debt slavery — often backed with extralegal violence — had replaced legal slavery as the means of providing cheap agricultural labor.

The planter families in place fought hard to maintain their positions. The Northern political interests did not have the attention or the will to prevail. After 1873, financial panic further pulled Northern attention away from Reconstruction. The South would remain a nation within the nation for almost one hundred years.

Fix It with Technology

Somehow, the first solution attempted is always a technical fix. Adjusting social relationships, power relationships and influence relationships is not considered.
— Richard Tabor Greene, Global Quality, p. 112

Technical innovation has been a constant feature of the American story. We never had a medieval history in which life was lived the same back-breaking way for time out of mind. Perhaps this is the reason why we first reach for a technical rather than a social solution to a problem, whether the solution goes with or against the grain of the problem.

Are your kids watching inappropriate shows on TV when you’re not home? Don’t bother to create family discipline; get a cable box with parental controls. Are your employees following ineffective procedures? Don’t bother with management and training effort; get a computer system that will make them use the right procedures.

When you build a better mousetrap, the mice just get smarter.
— unknown

The preference for a technical fix only becomes an issue when the problem is not susceptible to a technical fix. The kids learn how to work around the controls. The computer system implementation fails because people can’t get their jobs done in the company environment in the stylized manner envisioned by the software designers.

We Were Ten Thousand Strong

There is a basic tendency in human nature to count the number of people assembled or the cars in the parking lot. Since most people think of the United States as a democracy, what could be more democratic than weight of numbers? But this can be said about any mob of people.

Assemblies of people are susceptible to all of the above issues. They have insufficient staying power and take more notice of the big splashy announcement than the slow incremental achievement of results. It is hard to keep them together, especially past the first reverse in fortunes.

Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.
— House Speaker Sam Rayburn (1882-1961)

Big groups have divergent agendas. They are, by nature, coalitions. It is much easier to mobilize a coalition against something than for something. When the coalition comes close to actually achieving something, it can splinter because the members whose agenda did not include that result fall out.

Groups have a place, particularly in representative government, but one should not overrate them. The highly motivated individual who leads through example has powerful influence.

Written by srojak

September 16, 2015 at 11:53 am