Saturday, July 16, 2016

Notes from the Fever Machine

I liked the article at first. The attention grabbing Vox lede "Bernie Sanders is right the economy is rigged. He’s dead wrong about why" suggested a dose of reality to the naive succor of a populist rhetoric built on falsehood.  Bernie and the Koch brothers agree on the rigging - Bernie says it's plutocratic electoral influence over elections (the article helpfully offers a video in which Bernie explains it for himself), the Koch's say it's regulatory capture.  Instead, it's something more complex.  I love complexity.  Quick, post to facebook!

Wait a second... instead of debunking both as I would have hoped, the article generally ended up agreeing with the libertarian emphasis.  After debunking the notion that the system is dependent on corruption of money in politics, in which the rich rig the system for themselves (as many rich actually support Democratic policy; evidence of the marginal futility of political contributions can be found in the millions wasted on establishment Republicans - folks the evil Kochs and diabolical Carl Rove personally favored).  Rather, the article laid out a straightforward case in which regulations at all levels are designed by special interests that end up favoring the petite (and grand) bourgeois in their economic dominance.  OK, I'll buy it as far as it goes.  But is campaign finance the Bernie-left has in mind when it complains about the system being rigged?  Is this the extent of the rigging going on?  If we were to get rid of these regulations, would wealth inequality disappear, or at least severely fade, the immoral rigging having been cut?  Uh...

Rats!  Things have gotten confusing.  

Fever swamps annoy me, whether it's right wing talk radio or left wing chai-tea fueled paranoia. They are defined by simple answers to complex questions, which require you to indulge paranoia and ad hominem - the toxic stew that defines the fever swamp.  The real problem with this type of thinking is that it distracts from the *actual* function of what is going on, which could lead to real solutions.  However, that is only a primary effect.

The secondary effect is the response.  Like good participants in political discourse, we bravely meet flawed ideas with demolishing counterattacks.  Go Vox!  But a good argument against a flawed argument doesn't actually get us anywhere, we merely tread water.  If I spend an hour convincing someone that taking the exit that goes off the cliff is a bad idea, I may have saved us from imminent death, but I haven't actually provided any insight into where we should be driving.

OK, so the system isn't dependent on a rigged system of political influence.  But i
s this what is meant by "rigged" to Bernie supporters?  Campaign finance is part of it, but I would argue a far larger interpretation of the term is that the system is "rigged" so that the more capital you have, the easier it is to get and hold on to capital.  This process is incredibly complex and generally baked in to our economic system.  It is much easier to sell people on a simple, paranoid concept of manipulation, rather than a deeper philosophical argument that attacks notions of property rights. 

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There is a tension at the foundation of politics in a democracy: what is good policy versus what is politically possible.  You can have the best policy in the world, but it is worthless without the former, which is built on the fact that actual voters need to vote and/or elect representatives who will vote their interest.  This requires good old fashioned compromise and persuasion.  A good democracy is designed to be slow and deliberative, in order to protect this process.  In a small car with only a few passengers, an argument over which exit to take can be accomplished relatively simply and quickly.  However, in a nation of millions, there are a lot of perspectives to consider.  It can't be quick.  It can't be simple.

But, alas, simple is so much easier.  The world is complicated enough.  Simple is also more satisfying.  It fits on a bumpersticker.  It fits in a sentence.  

How much talking is going on?  How much listening?  How much thinking?  What do people discuss?  

Friendships.  Family.  Children.  Sports.  Material items.  God, the material items!  Have you ever found yourself in a conversation which felt as if it was ripped from a commercial?  I personally have no desire to engage in such discussion for more than a minute.  But apparently many people are.  He did this.  She did that.  I just bought this.  Oh, did you do that to?  I'm going to do this.  I just love that.  Are you going to eat this?  I just ate that.

Do I sound like a moral scold?  I don't mean to be.  Morality implies obligation.  I could be mistaking that people are obligated to not engage in such discussion and instead talk about deeper things.  I don't think they are.  It is just that I personally find them dull, and am much more interested in deeper discussions - explorations of metaphysical concepts and meanings that transcend specific times and space and make broader connections.  I like to think critically.  I like to think about why I am thinking.

But so what?  I think this sort of thinking is more useful in some ways.  It is useful in better understanding the world.  It useful in better understanding yourself.  It is also enjoyable to me.  I find its new colors and emotions captivating.  I like the way one idea washes against another, merging and bending, or sometimes crashing into bits.  I value being someone who is wise, whose waters can mix and swirl through the world with integrity and clarity.

But I also have problems.  I can be hot-headed.  I can be selfish or arrogant.  I can focus on the weaknesses of others to the exclusion of their strengths.  I can forget to communicate my appreciation for them.  Yet none of these things are exclusive of an existence that emphasizes the profane, or of one that emphasizes the metaphysical.  I can have all of those problems and refrain from a discussion of simple things.  Likewise, one who discusses little more than simple things, who thinks little more than simple thoughts, can be cool-headed, self-less, humble, compassionate and appreciative.  

And yet, we live in a complicated world, with complicated problems that require complicated solutions.  Deep metaphysical thought is requisite for an adequate response.  What then to do, if you are one who spends 99% of their day thinking of flowers, footballs and foibles, and only 1% pondering the differences between atheism and deism, capitalism and socialism, civil rights, climate change, criminal justice or tax policy?  

And you vote.

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But does political engagement require deep, complex metaphysical thought?  When I think of all the simplistic political sloganeering out there, and those repeating it, I think of large numbers of people who are actually incredibly politically engaged.  They are all over the internet, spouting all kinds of ridiculously simplistic political ideas.  They are listening to a lot of talk radio.  They are watching political news programs.  They are attending campaign and protest rallies.  But they are not necessarily thinking deeply about anything.  Rather, they are passionate.  They are convinced of the glory of their cause.  They are morally indignant.  They are righteous and they are enthusiastic.  And they are as likely to be correct as incorrect: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are neck and neck in the polls.  

So to the list of simple things - flowers, food, footballs and foibles, we can add politics.  But this kind of politics is not grand analysis, self-reflective or policy oriented.  It is personal, tribal, reactive, and identity driven.  It is about rooting for your side and booing the other.  It is a sort of high-stakes game in which the consequences aren't merely winning or losing, but about the fabric of life as you know it.  Yet this is a perilous perch from which to root.  Imagine attending a football game in which the winning team got to pick a supreme court justice that would define your basic rights or pass laws that dictated the balance of your bank account  Passions would indeed brighten.  Identity would take on a severity of consequence.  The other team is not merely supporting an arbitrary event, but through their votes become an active force in your life poised to threaten everything you hold dear.  

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We can't all be experts.  We can't all be deep thinkers who revel in metaphysical complexity for personal enjoyment.  In fact most of us are not.  Most of us are are simple people with humble interests.  Yet we are asked, again and again, to pretend to not be so.  We are asked to have opinions on a nearly endless list of complicated issues.  Today, more than ever before, we are inundated with controversy staring at us from our morning screen, with comment fields literally asking us to chime in - tweeting, liking, commenting, sharing.  And with every tap and click, we are contributing a bit of ourselves, our identity, to the fever machine.   This is citizen democracy, is it not.  Call your congressman! Write him a letter!  Don't have time.  OK, just click this link.

Because what would happen if we didn't?  What if we didn't click or like or tweet?  The other side will win, of course!  Our identity will have diminished.  There, that devilish picture of Donald Trump goads us into mocking his trickery.  That evil stare of Hillary Clinton plotting another Benghazi, reminds us to loosen our guns.  

Complexity takes too long.  It requires thinking, which can be hard.  It requires ignoring your reactive self, and pausing to listen.  It requires placing bookmarks on your assumptions and indulging hypothetic situations in which what you thought was correct might not have been.  It requires putting your identity to the side and instead of attacking a caricature of your opponent, instead stepping into his shoes and trying to view things from his perspective.  It requires beginning from a place of trust and compassion, not suspicion and anger.  

It isn't as quick.  It doesn't provide immediate gratification.  It might not reinforce a comfortable identity.  It might be scary or leave you feeling silly.  But it will bring peace.  It will create better policy.  It will create a more lasting civil society.  It will allow the time and space for good ideas to bloom and make it into the sunlight of acceptance.  But first the fever must clear.

















Saturday, July 9, 2016

Finding Humanity

The Black Lives matter movement is sometimes dismissed as unnecessarily focusing on race.  Don't "all lives matter"?  Of course, this misses the point - that the implied refrain is "black lives matter too", pointing out the fact that there is a obvious pattern of blacks being treated with less restraint than whites in similar exchanges.  
It doesn't seem seem like such a stretch to say that because of disproportionate levels of poverty in black communities, and adjunctive criminal behavior, that police would be more sensitive to threat from blacks. I imagine police work in general is toxic to one's ability to treat others with kindness and good-will, when constantly exposed to the worst elements of society. So I can understand that an environment likely develops in which people become dehumanized.
* A personal anecdote (I am white): The one serious run in with police I had was when my car back fired as I tried to fix it on the side of the road. Someone in the neighborhood called the police, reporting gunshots and giving them my description. I found my self surrounded, was thrown to the ground. They ignored my telling them I had neck injury and painfully yanked my hands behind my back. They put me in a squad car and searched my vehicle, all the while explaining nothing, aside from a report of gunshots. After around 20 minutes, they told me with zero sympathy in affect, that I was free to go. Throughout the ordeal I had been extremely cooperative (guns were pointed at my head). I've never forgotten and felt profoundly humiliated.
I agree that overt racism is likely not the issue. However, the "implicit bias" cannot be brushed off. Cultural stereotypes are rampant, and of course must be fuel to any dehumanization already present in routine policework.
I would think the solution is to take this psychological phenomenon seriously, and embed systematic protections into the system. Maybe a certain amount of professional development time is set aside in which each officer is given the chance - maybe at least a day a month to engage in positive community relations activities as a sort of positive stimulus to counterbalance the negative stimuli they encounter routinely.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Directional Bliss

Would it be safe to say that all religious conceptions begin with a premise of cosmic purpose? Some might be more constrained than others. Buddhism, for instance, might be more limited to a narrative of reality that emphasizes personal growth of the individual, and unconcerned with larger questions of time and space and creation (we'll leave aside interpretations dependent upon reincarnation - Mexican readers are welcome to refer to this rhetorical flourish as "reincarne asada"*). However, most other faiths seem to require a basic laying-out of universal purpose beyond the mere individual. One would then assume that a sense of purpose is central to their system.

As far as I know, humans are the only species to believe in God, or at least hold to religious views of reality. This is almost certainly related to our cognitive prowess. It seems intelligence and consciousness are basically the ability of an organism to learn to make connections among different parts of their environment. It happened to be useful for certain primates to do this and we became quite successful at developing this skill-set by applying it with greater and greater complexity. But our biological limitations remain. We occupy a sort of intellectual goldilocks-zone between the muddled musings of an IQ 50 and the blinding brilliance of an IQ 150. The specific brain structures we evolved a couple of million years ago allowed us capacities to make rudimentary connections, which we then developed through increasingly complex social systems to make even greater connections. As a species, we possess a distributed intelligence that far outstrips the abilities of any individual, at least in a certain quantitative sense.
To ascribe purpose, or directionality to this, would seem to be primarily interested in these two developments: the individual capacity for connections, and a social distribution of intelligence. And yet, if we are talking about natural selection, it would seem that the latter, the social intelligence, has actually inhibited the evolution of the individual - more specifically, an increase in the individual's capacity for intelligence (connection making). As a species we are no longer being selected for connection-making prowess. Many species evolved forms that were so well-suited for their niche that they have stopped evolving much over hundreds of millions of years. And yet, our species required evolutionary innovation, so that we didn't remain simple, yet effective and efficient lower organisms. And this process, a few million years a go, largely halted, it seems, given that our selection process has derailed due to cultural developments. I suppose one could still find a directionality towards intelligence, or consciousness to admire in all this. Maybe even a cybernetic development of super-connected brains. But take that to its logical extreme and you seem to rapidly leave behind the organism and species itself and enter a sort of cold, computational sophistry, an all-knowing, all-connection machine. Would that be the ultimate "purpose", some kind of "borg" synthetic hive mind? Rather, it appears the directional romance is for a specific type of humanity, tied to a time and place and form. Which, it seems to me, speaks most strongly to the impulse as having been reinforced by a very specific set of cultural notions - rules you might say - whose adherence provide warm feelings.

*pardon the tonal fragment

Saturday, April 2, 2016

New Project Finally Finished... Whew!

So, my last project having been completed way back in 2003, I've finally finished another.  One of the songs on it was originally written I think as far back as 2004 (All I See).  I remember actually playing it for my therapist after my suicide attempt.  But with my daughters being so little, I haven't had much time since then to apply myself artistically, sparing the occasional stolen moment with the guitar here and there.

But now they're older and more independent.  My career as well began to straighten out a bit a few years back.  That's actually not the best description, but emotionally... it fits.

And so in 2013 I took my 10 best songs and began laying down more tracks - drums, bass, lead guitar, piano, etc.  A slow process, working on maybe a track at a time on weekend mornings, here we are in April 2016.

I'm still a solo musician.  Never worked out very well socially for me to find other people to do much substantial with.  Tim Groseclose and my improvisations have always been really cool.  Ryan Jones lent me drums back in Portland for the 2003 project.  Josiah Rector added anonymous guest vocals for my secret rap album the same year.

Each of the songs has meaning for me.  Although the lyrics are vague enough that you wouldn't be able to tell much.  But events in my life have informed their subjects. In the digital age now, a mere CD release seemed anachronistic.  Would people even listen?  But to put them on you tube would require a visual. So I ambitiously decided to do illustrations for each song.  I think about 160 in total. Many clues there for the meaning of each song.  Friends might recognize various times in my life from Here it Comes.  These represent jobs I've had throughout my life.

I'm somewhat the Tralfamadorian out here in my little artistic bubble.  I used to bring my guitar to work which Kevin Palmer and Kevin O'dell may remember.  One of the clients there told me she was my biggest fan.  Aside from my wife, she was probably correct.

I love to make music.  It seems a shame however not to share it with any who might enjoy it.  I hope you will!



Playing with Bubbles

Harold Pollack is skeptical of Charles Murray's Bubble Quiz.
Joe the Plumber would probably ace that particular exam. Good for him. But he’s no more authentically American than I am, no more authentic than the inhabitants of more cosmopolitan or less non-Hispanic American worlds, either.
I too found this quiz curious, and somewhat trolling.  It polishes the spear tip on the argument that lower-class, lower-culture, lower-educated whites are to be resentful of upper-class, upper-culture, upper-educated whites.  I find myself wounded by it, and sympathetic - snobbery is real, as is the resentment it creates.  I immediately reflect upon my own "hipster" interests, cultured by a process of criticism and evaluation, skeptical and analytic.  Music, fashion, movies, television, food, literature: none of which to be taken for granted, accepted as they come from family or community, but rather to be assessed according to an extrinsic rubric of historical contexts, objectives and criteria.  Each artifact is never to be accepted according to tradition or default, but rather as something to be explored within a larger cultural expansive.  Even when the default option is selected, it is appreciated with a wink of post-modernism - cheese puffs and Pabst blue ribbon (or Celine Dion, although I realize I'm in rare hipster air there) are enjoyed for their almost comical yet elegant simplicity, all the while understood as tropes themselves of particular historical manufactural moments.

All of which is fundamentally progressive.  This approach is learned, usually in cognitively enriched home environments, or chance entry into friendship circles that reinforce critical thought, and generally leads to higher education, which reinforces this posture further.

And it doesn't end with cultural material consumption, but extends as well into social analysis: religion, politics, history, psychology - all of encounters a critical analysis which seeks to transcend tradition and established authority.  "Question everything" is the guiding principle to be striven towards.  Skepticism and enlightenment become high values.  If one is not questioning, critiquing, evaluating, comparing, contrasting, one is failing to perform basic duties.  The stance is progressive, liberal, as opposed to conservative.  Instead of standing before history shouting stop, one ought be driving the train - past the cheese puffs, Pabst and The Bachelor - on to hummus, Sierra Nevada and Herzog.

Can the conservative be critical?  Of course, just as he can enjoy fine wine and literature.  He investigates, questions, evaluates, critiques... and ends up in favor of tradition.  But this type of conservative is a rarer breed.  This type, often a libertarian (he finds cultural conservatism silly, but so too the pretentions of the statist - all pretentions really, his defense of genre against literary canon is quite high brow analysis, if self-serving).  But enlightenment and skepticism are not conservative values.  They are defined by subversion of traditional paradigms.  Thus conservatives who wield them must do so carefully, building arguments not from sleepy inheritance, but rather from erudite analysis of historical context.

Which brings us back to the bubble.  A bubble refers to one's attention, how one spends one's time.  Murray references situational characteristics of an individual's placement in space and time.  Certain stores, certain friendships, certain neighborhoods, certain television channels.  These define the extent to which one is in a socio-economic bubble.  HIs quiz is simple, and designed to target (troll) upper-SES whites.  Lower-SES individuals are no less prone to living in bubbles.  Eating only cheese puffs, Pabst, listening to Dion and watching the Bachelor are no less insulated from Herzog or World Music.

But the point of the exercise is to illustrate the power dynamics hidden within these spacial and temporal spheres.  The ability - the desire even - to question, analyze, evaluate, critique requires societal capital.  It corresponds with cognitive enrichment that comes from social privilege.  This is where the resentment lives.  The pickup truck with the "redneck" sticker on the bumper is a reaction to a sense of unfairness, of being looked down upon.  It is a statement of pride in the face of a perceived and real imbalance of power.

The conservative movement has been polishing this spear tip for decades....  The "elites'" arrive at their position through privilege....  This privilege grants them the luxury to adopt enlightenment, skeptical values ("book learnin')... this privilege allows them not only better pay, but a whole variety of cultural "goodies": music, food, fashion, tastes that play as status symbols for their privilege, the nature of which is not merely arbitrary, but defined in direct opposition to tradition.  Sierra Nevada is not merely fancy beer, but a direct product of critical rejection of "lesser" tastes, derived as they are from tropes, derivations, and unreflective experience.... to engage in such cultural activity is to traffic in a sort of  enlightenment masturbation - the organ of pleasure erected from a progressive stance....

Or so goes the argument.  But wait for it! ...the money shot: just as upper-SES microbrews are emblems of exploitation, products of critique inherited from privilege and defined by a process of discriminative taste-making, so too is the liberal, progressive ideology.  Social progress and relativistic values are just as much products of this enlightenment, skeptical stance.  Critical thought as decadence.

However, this is all cheap trickery.  Disadvantage is real, and immoral. Critical thought and analysis requires societal capital, and to the extent that there is an inequality of societal capital, there is moral failure.  However, critical thought and analysis do not require class inequality.  This is the cynical lie being sold.  Sure, you can find individual instances of cultural snobbery, where instances of cultural unsophistication are sneered at meanly.  But to take the position that the concept of cultural criticism is therefore an immoral act is absurd.  Complexity is Go ahead and listen to Shania Twain, read Danielle Steele and eat cheese puffs all day, but the fact remains that they are simplistic and derivative.  That is an empirical fact.  They may be entirely enjoyable, but complex they are not.  Whether or not one has a history of learning appropriate to understand this fact is a spatial and temporal reality that need not be a function of class.  Listeners of Phish and Dave Mathews (generally college educated) are a testament to this fact, as both bands are generally considered derivative and uninteresting to music critics, those who's job is predicated on having spent long hours of learning musical contextual analysis.  That a learning history of complexity need not be defined by class is evidenced by the wealth of experience in blue collar trades: would you tell a highly-skilled tradeseman that experience (learning history and contextual analysis) doesn't matter?  Knowing how to precisely lathe a rocking chair leg or replace the alternator an an '09 Chevy Silverado is hardly less discriminating than an appreciation of micro-brews.  That one is more valued than the other is function of SES status as it relates to social privilege, not a critique of the process of critical analysis.

So, to the extent that the Murray quiz asks us to reflect upon our learning histories and privilege, the exercise is useful.  However, to the extent that it seeks to further sharpen a wedge between blue collar and white collar workers by arguing that cultural sophistication is responsible for social inequality, it distracts from the real functional relationships that drive economic mobility.  Rather than cower before the notion that my cultural interests are decadent, I prefer to embrace them with pride, meanwhile continuing to actively advocate for social policies that seek to expand access to social mobility for all.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Simple Thing Like Behavior


A BCBA, Adam Ventura, wonders about the future of applied behavior analysis, and whether something like  a singularity might one day arrive, with technology displacing real therapists.  But whether it will or not, a more immediate question is how to raise awareness about the field in the context of decades of (my words) deliberate skepticism.

Since learning about ABA 3 years ago, getting my BCBA last October, and to this day, I've been fascinated by this question of mainstream acceptance of our field.  Or, rather, why there isn't more of it.

I have always been fascinated my human behavior. 

One of my first jobs was delivering meals to people with AIDS all over the city of San Francisco, from luxury penthouse apartments to squalid projects.  At the time I was also attending college and taking social sciences courses, learning about political history, economics, philosophy, psychology, etc.  I was thinking very deeply about the injustice that I saw all around me, and wanted to understand both how it had come to be, as well as what could be done about it.  One of the ways I passed the long drives in my delivery van was to listen to political talk radio.  I was struck, over and over, by the emphasis on the right - personalities like Rush Limbaugh - on the behavior of the poor.  Welfare abuse, laziness, criminality, poor parenting, failure to clean up their neighborhoods, were a constant refrain. 

How could we, as a society, be expected to help these people (who were so often minorities) if they seemingly refused to help themselves?  I was disgusted by the generalizations, the smugness, the lack of empathy.  But what they described was often quite true.  I saw up close so many of the same behaviors.  Not by everyone in the neighborhoods, of course, but by too many.

On the left, the emphasis was on structural problems - racism by banks and employers, school teachers with low expectations, a history of oppression and disenfranchisement that left generations of families with few resources and psychopathologies like physical abuse or addiction that were a function of growing up in wretched conditions.

So I thought deeply about how these narratives conflicted, and yet were at the root of political disagreement in the country.  This was back in the 1990's, but little has changed.  The history of conservative and progressive thought can almost be defined by this conflict: why do people do what they do?  Is it because they freely make different choices, or because their choices are constrained by larger social structures?  If they are free, then do we simply blame them for their lot in life because it is one they choose?  Or do we help them out of an obligation because their choices are a function of the environment in which they have lived – an environment we tacitly support as fellow Americans?  It seemed all to come down to free will: do we have it or not?

This was a HARD problem.  The more I read, the more difficult I understood the problem to be.  For centuries people had been struggling with it.  I, however, felt like the problem was relatively simple.  From what I saw around me, people increasingly seemed entirely a product of their genes and environment.  I was by this time working with schizophrenics and people with traumatic brain injuries in different group homes.  I saw just how fragile the brain is, and how we take for granted the role it plays in our emotional and cognitive abilities.

I obtained an undergraduate degree in social science and a Master’s in Elementary Education.  I wanted to help children maximize their potential.  Yet from the beginning I could see how trapped kids were.  Even at the poor school where I did my internship, I could see the stratification beginning: regardless of income, what seemed to matter most was the support the children were receiving at home.  The teachers were doing their best – I saw greatness and I saw frustration.  But in a class of 30 students there was only so much a teacher could do.  No matter, I would find a way.

I read Maslow and Bandura, Piaget and Vygotsky.  Skinner - I was terrified to find out much, much, later – was entirely absent.  We learned about “schema” and “multiple intelligences”.  We learned that what mattered was making lessons “fun”, and that through high expectations and diligence, all of our kids could go to college.  (My social sciences background was skeptical that we were ignoring larger structural forces – who, for example, would clean the bathrooms and wash the dishes when everyone was attending college?  But no matter.  I pressed on.)

My first experiences were as a substitute teacher in Reading, PA, a post-industrial, post-white flight city in which poor, misbehaved children were the norm.  Gunshots at night and drug deals translated with palpable immediacy into children dropped of at school too tired to work, angry, frustrated, resentful, mistrustful of authority and with a deep need for attention.  As a substitute, I struggled.  But I assumed when I had my own classroom, I would be able to reach all of them and give them what they needed.

When I finally did, a smaller Kindergarten class of around 22, I had a vindicating year.  Despite the 5 to 6 year-old children coming to school with extremely low academic readiness, I was able to get them all to basic grade-level standards before the year was done.  Many of them could barely recognize letters, shapes or numbers.  Many had never been read to.  Many couldn’t hold a pencil properly as they had been given few opportunities to use them.  I gave out homework to try and make up for this lack.  I told silly stories to engage them. I danced.  I illustrated letter sounds with fanciful cartoons.  I brought in books by the cartful form the local library to stimulate their curiosity. 

The parents were for the most part loving, caring, and devoted.  Yet many simply did not have an academic mindset.  Many had not thought to read books to their children, much less provide a cognitively enriched environment.  They showed their love with hugs, food, and kisses and freedom – one parent told me her daughter (beautiful baby-teeth smile filled with metal caps, however highly inattentive and at the bottom of her class academically) would not do her homework because as soon as she got home from school would strip to her underpants and run outside for the rest of the day.  Some struggled to get their children to school on time.  One child missed 2 months of school because of a gunshot wound from a careless cousin.  More than a few children spoke of the horror movies they loved to watch – one dressed as Chucky for Halloween.  Their world was rough and unkempt.  Parents were struggling.  There were stories of incarceration, parents unfit because of drugs so grandparents took over.  Most parents worked low-pay jobs – gardeners, clerks, maids.  One child spoke very little English but excelled academically.  His Mexican immigrant parents had been professionals in Mexico.

But the next year was worse.  For financial reasons I had to teach a double-class, and was now responsible for juggling both a kindergarten and first-grade curriculum.  I struggled with classroom management in my attempt to provide differentiated instruction to children with a functional grade-level range of 3-4 years.  Mid-year, I was asked by the principle to leave my classroom and fill-in for the high school science teacher that had quit.  It was a K-12 school, and I was felt to be the only of the elementary teachers to be a good fit for the older kids. 

But these weren’t just older kids.  Ours was a charter school.  It had originally been established as an alternative homeschool site for a group of largely white, Christian parents in the majority poor, Hispanic neighborhood.  But over the years it expanded enrollment and the local demographic (poor, minority) began to edge in.  In my time there, I saw the last few families – better off, organized, involved – pull their children out.  To make up decreasing enrollment, younger classes were consolidated, and high school students were recruited by accepting more and more students who had dropped out of regular education schools – even continuation schools.  This meant a host of behavioral problems. 

These kids hated school.  The most successful teachers seemed the meanest.  One teacher told me “what these kids understand best is meanness, so don’t be nice to them.”  I was horrified.  I tried to make learning fun.  I had little success.  These kids weren’t interested in success.  What they were interested in was fighting, getting high and having unprotected sex.  I met my first teen mothers.  One of them, at the age of 17, had a 2-year-old son, and appeared mainly interested in gossiping and surreptitiously painting her nails or trying to plug in her curling iron.  It dawned on me that her child would soon be in kindergarten.  Some desperate teacher would be trying to make up for this young girl’s complete lack of parenting skills. 

What the hell was going on?  I dug deeper.  I read Hart and Risley’s Meaningful Differences, a watershed study that was one of the first attempts to collect data on parent-child interactions within different socio-economic classes.  (Interesting, Todd Risley, I was to discover later, was to be a founding contributor to The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis’ landmark paper, “Seven Dimensions of AppliedBehavior Analysis, in 1968.)  The story was gripping.  It explained everything that I saw happening.  It described stressed-out families interacting with their children in ways that were mostly loving, yet lacking in cognitive elements that provided opportunities for expanded verbal development.  Looking at the 17-year-old mom in my class, I was not surprised in the least.  This was generational poverty at work.

I kept on.  Enrollment eventually dropped even further and the school could no longer afford to keep me on as a science teacher.  By this time I had gotten credentials in Earth and Biological Science.  I took a job myself at a continuation high school.  Here was a population in exponentially more need of intervention.  Kids got high in the bathroom.  Many were foster children or lived in group-homes.  Any work at all was regularly refused, no matter how much support was given.  Instead, students shared stories of horrific abuse, rape, and violence.  Outside my classroom door each morning the lunch counter opened early for the teen mother program.  When done with their work, I allowed some of my male students to leave and go spend time with their children.  But teen fathers usually wanted nothing to do with their children.  Students regularly only showed up for the first few months or weeks of class, often only enough to satisfy a court mandate.  Fights broke out in my room.  Hair was pulled.  Extensions were pulled off.  Children fled out the back door, security chasing after them.  I would hear stories later about parents getting involved and searching the streets to facilitate their children’s revenge.  One student came to class flying high on what seemed likely to be methamphetamines.  He lived in a local group home and I never saw him again.

I poured myself into my blog.  I wrote more than a thousand pages, combining philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, economics – everything I read that helped me better understand just what in our system had broken.  I studied school performance maps and their relationship to demographics and geographic housing patterns.  I looked at average incomes and crime rates, education levels and quality of libraries by zip code.  I began thinking about the concept of financial capital leverage, how it takes money to make money.  I thought about this concept in a global sense: what about human capital?  Social capital?  Education, safety, parenting, sanitation, peers, parks, transportation, infrastructure – all forms of capital at one’s disposal.  All of these were determinate of one’s self-efficacy.  Forget about the income gap.  The reality of human growth involves something greater.  I needed a better term so I began referring to this as “societal capital”: everything that a society provides to a person that s/he is able to leverage into the exponential attainment of more capital.  There was negative capital as well.  Drug abuse, mental illness, and discrimination were all negative forms of capital that had the opposite effect: they decreased one’s capital exponentially.  I doubted many people were reading.  But I had to write.  I needed an outlet.  What I was writing about wasn’t commonly found on either the right or the left.  It was either all the kids’ fault, or it was the teachers’ fault.  The conversation wasn’t advanced enough to look deeper.

At school, my principal, in his infinite wisdom, was convinced what was needed was to adhere to strict curricular standards and test preparation.  These kids needed to learn.  No matter that many were being beaten and abused at home, suffering PTSD from secret tragedies, or only coming to school because it was the one relatively safe place in their lives where they could sit quietly or engage a peer in friendly conversation.  The old continuation model, where students were given hands-on, therapeutic course work like sculpting, art, or poetry – a recognition of their broken state, was long gone.  Now we were all about state test performance.  The principal, I once remember, confessed to his staff his love of “data”.  Data was going to drive our teaching.  Data was going to drive performance.

When yearly testing came around, my students drew patterns in the bubbles.

I then moved on again, this time to teach in general education in Yucca Valley, named after the beautiful, somehow alien-looking cactus trees.  I hoped the students would at least be in something more than survival mode.  At this point, 5 years into my career, I know I was.  I had two small children and a wife at home to support.  I was used now to laying my head down at night on a pillow of guilt, doubt, anger, and fear.  But he next year was hardly better.  In some ways it was worse.  These kids – mostly low-SES or with various troubles – were satisfied with D’s, something they were used to acquiring by the skin of their teeth at the end of the year after doing little work and pleading with their teachers.  Towards the end of the first semester, 2/3 were failing, despite every possible prompt I could have given them.  The 4-5 daily calls home I made were of little use.  The parents had long since given up hope on shaping the behavior of their children.  The assistant principal, however, pulled me aside one day and explained that I couldn’t fail this many kids.  There simply wasn’t enough capacity in the summer school program. 

I was slowly going mad.  During my long commute up into the wretched dust of the high desert, I fantasized about driving my car into the divider.  Some nights I cried.  I couldn’t take it any more.  Now not only did my students hate me.  I hated them.

So this was it, I thought.  As the end of the year came I packed my things, fully expecting to never teach again.  I thought about going into special education, where I hoped (naively) at least I might have the support to meet my students’ needs.   I soon learned that the burnout rate in special ed was actually higher than anywhere else in education.  But I was determined.  Maybe I could make it work.

On my blog, I was realizing I had said most of what I needed to say about our broken system of education – that in reality what we had was a broken economic system built upon a broken, flawed philosophical system that didn’t understand human behavior.  In a special education course I learned about the history of disability rights in the US in the latter half of the 20th century.  After a procession of legal victories, a social conception of rights had formed to agree that people with special needs deserved larger society’s active effort in providing them the support they needed to be as successful as possible.  No longer shoved away into the corner, out of sight and out of mind, society now had a responsibility to these individuals.  In 1975 the Individuals with Disabilities Act guaranteed that children with special needs had a right to a "free and appropriate education".  Schools were now required by law to address students’ needs and make accommodations for them. 

It occurred to me that what we had come to realize was morally correct with regard to physical disabilities we had not yet come to realize for the merely “disadvantaged”.  Sure, we offer the bare minimum through a patchwork of programs such as free/reduced lunch or title 1 funds for special tutoring.  But it can't possibly make up for the problems these kids live with.  And it is nothing like the large-scale, sustained, legally binding law we have for students with disabilities.

Why not?  Is not a child with numerous risk factors deserving of special assistance in a comprehensive, cohesive fashion?  When you look at all of the factors that go into a child’s emotional, physical and academic success, the very concept of disadvantage defines an unequal future.  Is this, to use the language of the 1975 law, “appropriate”?

I realize providing an comprehensive, individualized education to disadvantaged students is a radical notion.  What it implies is a complete restructuring of our entire educational system, as well as a rather invasive and powerful legal intrusion into the family.  Yet the larger problem is philosophical: kids are born with disabilities.  There is little we can do to change that.  But kids are not born disadvantaged; they are born into an environment of disadvantage.  We can change this, but it requires a reshaping of our economic and social institutions.

Let’s look at a real-world example of what I mean.  Take the 2 year-old child of the 17-year-old mother.  If this child was taken and place in an upper-SES family, it’s risk factors removed, it would likely go on to college and stand a high chance of success.  Of course, this would be entirely immoral, aside from impractical.  This child might be fine, but what about the structure within which the parent exists.  She will continue the rest of her life working for low wages, providing society with cheap labor.  But in this scenario society has not changed.  The sector of the economy that requires an underclass to operate will continue.  And who is to say the parent won’t simply have another child?  She likely will.  She will be living in poverty, in a neighborhood with similar property values as she can afford, inhabited by people of similar means.  They will all send their children to the same school, to exponentially de-leverage each other, while on the other side, the upper-SES property value families will be leveraging away between rounds of tennis and political caucusing.

We’re not going to take children away from their families.  That’s barbaric.  But is the current neo-liberal agenda, to “fix the schools”, much better?  

It sounds good, and has a bipartisan ring.  But in the past decades we’ve tried: charters, school closings, hiring “the best and brightest”, union-busting... we’ve made next to zero progress.  After a sober analysis of the functional relationships in poor communities, children and education, is it any surprise?  At best, schools are an extra leg-up for those unlucky enough to have low levels of “societal capital”.  At worse they are a continued excuse for a society that wants to pretend it is helping those that get left behind by the system, all-the-while depending on classes of poor people for its cheap labor.   Given that most of our political eggs are in such a hopeless basket, this alternative seems pretty barbaric too.

So what to do?  Well, we can start by understanding the problem.  And to understand it, we must return to Skinner.  As I mentioned previously, what is broken in society is our philosophy of human behavior.  In 2016, enormous numbers of people still believe in the magical concept of “free will”.  What this means is that they believe that all people, once they reach a certain age, are “free” to make their own decisions, regardless of life experience.  If, at this point, they make poor choices, the responsibility begins and ends with them.  It is not society’s fault.  Therefore, society is not responsible either for investing in special programs to help them, or to alter its institutions so as to stop creating the environments which produce individuals who would make such decisions.  This is the raw core of disagreement between right and left, democrat and republican, “big government” versus “small government”.  You can have policy debates about the efficacy of different policy responses, but less government necessarily means leaving people on their own to suffer whatever contingencies naturally arise in any given environment.  For some, this may work fine.  But for many, this will mean a life shaped by a lack of resources.  And just like financial resources, Rent will develop in which those with capital will be in a better position to profit off of those with less.   Humans are selfish by nature, and without strong contingencies keeping us in check, we are very good at living with inequality.  We are very good at building walls, both literally and figuratively.

So to continue the metaphor, the first wall that must come down is the notion of free will.  Skinner’s work, along with countless others in the natural science of behaviorism, has devastated it once and for all.  Radical behaviorism the most rigorous, empirical, and parsimonious account available of human behavior - both verbal (including private thoughts) and non-verbal.  Its laws are irrefutable. 

The political history of behaviorism versus cognitive science is long and not well enough understood.  But it is apparent that those who decades ago began proclaiming its death were ignorant of the science.  Not only is it flourishing today, with practical applications that show results in certain populations - namely those with autism - that would be almost unthinkable in any other field of psychology, but offers great promise in a great many other areas as well, from business to politics, mental health to urban planning.  (And of course we can't forget education.)

A common critique of behaviorism is that it is too simple, too reductionist.  Sure, it is said, it describes well the behavior of simple animals, or some simple human behaviors, but doesn’t come close to explaining the complexity of human thought.  This is both true and false.  True, many human thoughts are the product of incalculable functional relations between an individual’s genetic make-up and the schedules of punishment and reinforcement that have acted upon them in a process of unfolding, never-ending contingencies.  We cannot account for specific instances at such levels of resolution.  But this would be like asking how one molecule of H2O got to be just where it is in the middle of a hurricane, or of a molecule of pigment in a Rembrandt. 

At the same time, it would be false to say we don’t a have a clear explanation for the principles from which molecules of water or paint operate.  They are part of highly complex systems, yes, but systems that obey fundamental laws.  The same can be said of behavior.  We know the principles of respondent and operant conditioning are responsible for every measurable human behavior, no matter how complex.  As a system, the human “mind” is entirely behavioral, and operates according to the same principles and laws that all other organisms do.  I can’t possible tell you whether or not you are going to drink coffee tomorrow morning, or why you didn’t today.  But I can explain the principles involved that will, over time have come to create your coffee-drinking behavior.

But why, people would always say, does it just FEEL like we are in control of our actions?  There must be something more.  Maybe some emergent property, quantum entanglement, or some yet to be discovered phenomenon that allowed for us - the most sophisticated thing in the known universe - to be acting free from the constraints of determinism.

I’ve only been studying behaviorism for close to three years now, and a certified behavior analyst for less than one year.  But I'm still struck by the gap between behaviorism's vast scientific body of knowledge and popular discussions of psychology and philosophy -  not to mention its implication for every other realm of human endeavor.  I still love to read non-behaviorist writing on the subject, but I find it increasingly difficult to take anyone seriously who doesn’t at least understand the basic principles of behaviorism.  It would be like reading book on geology by someone who has never heard of radiometric dating.  To be honest, the discussions of the “mind” one often hears from non-behaviorists bears striking resemblance to evolution skeptics discussing intelligent design.  One of the first things I do now when picking up any book dealing with a related subject is check the index for references to Skinner.  There usually are none.

I’m now a BCBA, with a successful practice and doing work I love each day with beautiful families and their children with autism.  I am deeply gratified by the constant miraculousness of the work – the principles of “verbal behavior” that Skinner developed and others built on to provide effective treatments I get to deliver are literally teaching the behavior of thought in children and allowing them to more fully meet their potential as individuals.

But while the work I do makes a profound difference in the lives of children with special needs, I can’t help but think of the larger world, with so much sadness, suffering and inequality.  I can’t help but think of the impact we could have – not just with the practical application of the principles of behaviorism, but the philosophical implications its science has for how we structure and organize our society.  With a behavioral lens, so many old mythologies that have kept us from real political and social progress slip away, exposed as illusions.  In their place, a vast humility takes form that sees each individual as unique, yet inseparably tied to everything else in the universe, shaped by the contingencies of day to day life, interacting through his breath, blood, organs and nerve endings in complete harmony.

It is through our objective philosophy of science that we reach out across four thousand millennia and gaze upon ourselves, both in all we could be and what we may one day yet become.  This reaching is our “will”, though it is anything but free.  It provides the reinforcement.  It provides the punishment.  All we can ever do is go along for the ride, from these words to your history of associated memories.  What will be will be, however in this humble endeavor, I try my best to be light from that gaze, into darkness of the unknown.