The other day I was doing some chores while half listening to the TV. The presenters were doing a feature on Jackie Robinson who had been called up to the majors 70 years ago (April 15, 1947) to break the color barrier. The reporter interviewed a lady who stated she was so very proud that “he was one of ours.” Believing she was referring to African-Americans, I thought to myself, “no, he was one of ours” meaning all Americans.
But then I realized that I had not only assumed that the woman had suffered from an us-vs-them mentality but that I had also done so by presuming what her response meant. Perhaps she had intended to include all Americans in her “ours”. I went to the TV and ran back the DVR (how did I survive without that device) to see if I had been mistaken. This time I gave the piece my full attention but I could not find any indication of what she was thinking was included in her “ours’.
It may have been likely that she had, indeed, intended to only include African-Americans in her exclusive group of “ours” but we will never know. But it was my reaction that I was concerned about. Given the heightened racial tension that has developed in recent years despite the gains since the Civil Rights Movement, many blacks believe persistent discrimination still exists.
The experiences of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott were a revelation to me. On the Senate floor Scott, who is black, related his many instances of discrimination. One telling example was when he said he had been pulled over by the police five times in a year. I haven’t been pulled over for so long that I do not remember when the last time was (I do remember the car I was driving –Isuzu Trooper -but that was many cars ago).
In my case, I was able to catch myself in my reflexive, instinctual thinking. It is our instinctual brain that reacts quickly to stimuli. For primitive humans, this was a vital attribute to have in order to survive in dangerous pre-historic conditions. But the instinctual brain can lead us astray in our more civilized times. Luckily for me I was able to engage my rational brain to sort out the flaws of my instinctual thinking.
We are living in irrational times. If you don’t believe me, just read the comments section on any controversial news story. Discussion quickly degenerates to name calling and epithets. It doesn’t matter if you are left-wing or right-wing, Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative. The ability to have a reasonable discussion is almost impossible. Conservative speakers fear for their lives on many college campuses. Whether it is a rally in support of President Trump or a protest against him, there will be cadres of counter-protestors itching for a fight.
Most economics theories assume that people make rational economic decisions. However, behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown that many economic decisions are not rational but instinctual (which is why there are no one-handed economists). Likewise, democracy is dependent on having a rational citizenry in order to function properly. Unfortunately, as in economics, people often react to their gut feelings over their rational brains. Politics and economics are so closely intertwined it is hard to separate where one ends and the other begins so Kahneman’s theory applies to both equally.
Is there no way to stop ourselves as we sink down into irrational populism? How do we stop ourselves from tribal identification of people who share the same racial, religious or class characteristics? Hate of the opposition builds the cohesion of the group as noted by Psychiatrist Anna Fels in her New York Times opinion piece, the Point of Hate (April 14, 2017). And social media provides a feedback loop that reinforces our pre-set convictions without the interference of rational discussion.
All of this fermenting hate is metastasizing into our daily life; determining the movies we see and the chicken sandwiches we buy by their political purity. The American Social Contract is crumbling before our eyes and seeping through our hands like so many grains of sand.
The crumbling of our social contract has been aided and abetted by our elected leaders, corporate elites and self-serving community organizers that have tried to capture the American democratic experiment for their private interests. The black community has particularly been subjected to the disadvantages of this unlevel playing field but other groups also suffer from a lack of equality of opportunity. The erosion of the social contract creates disillusion among the citizenry who are then vulnerable to the siren song of populism of both the left and the right.
But populism believes in outcomes, not processes. The only way to achieve the desired outcomes regardless of the social or economic inputs is through the coercive power of the state. Populism inevitably devolves into authoritarianism. Following such a path dooms our children and grandchildren to decades, if not generations, of impoverished tyranny.
Jackie Robinson came from a generation that believed that they could make a better world. Jackie’s move to the majors and his subsequent career was a step toward that better world. That woman on TV was the beneficiary of the actions of Jackie Robinson and many others. The only hope for a brighter future is through reinvigoration of and propagation of our western values by re-engaging our rational brains through our individual actions as exemplified by Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was one of ours.