Thursday, March 2, 2017

Change, Fear, and the Myth of the Zero Sum

The conservative machine loves to call liberals "snowflakes" and "cry babies".  For some reason the belief is that we are scared of our own shadows, likely to melt in the sun.  But if you look at the politics of the left as compared to the right, it sure seems to me that the opposite is more likely the truth.  Based on the policies they are championing: CONSERVATIVES. ARE. TERRIFIED.  So-called "extreme vetting," a 2,000 mile wall, getting rid of all the "bad hombres," not to mention the inexplicable fervor to send our sons and daughters back into the furnace of war to obliterate an enemy that nobody else seems to want to deal with.  Everywhere you turn, the conservative media outlets are pushing a "boogey man" narrative that keeps voters coming back.

But our country IS changing.  Probably at a level not seen since the industrial revolution.  Our economy is transforming into the beginnings of what it will be over the next 100 years.  Old industries that were once the staple of our economy are decaying.  New industries are still finding their way into the mainstream economy needed to support them.  All the while, our demographics are evolving with them.  Baby boomers are retiring (or should be if they were able to save enough).  And as that generation slowly makes its way off the stage, a multi-racial, more diverse and socially liberal generation is on the ascent.  In short, the way we work, live, interact, love, and thrive is quickly changing in fundamental ways, never to return.

And, for many, those less equipped to join the new economy, to relate in a browner, more accepting nation, that's scary as hell.  It feels like the country is slipping away from them.  Then, add on the conservative media's constant whipping up of fear about terrorism and immigrants.  You're losing your job, your neighborhood is changing, AND they're all coming to kill you??!!  No wonder people run to the strong protective embrace of the right.

The narrative is a sham.  Seeing new trends and new faces emerging around you doesn't lessen your ability to thrive or pursue your own life and dreams in the same way you always have.  It just means people that choose to do so differently are likely to be doing their own thing in neighborhoods like yours. And terrorism?  Look, I grew up in Germany in the 70s and 80s.  Lybians, the Red Army Faction, and others were setting off bombs in discotheques and on airliners.  We didn't cringe in fear then; we faced them down with vigilance and determination.  That was the proper response to terror.

The underlying belief making all of this change especially frightening is the idea that prosperity and fulfillment in America is a zero sum game.  That, in order for some people to win, others have to lose.  That's simply not the case.  Sure, sometimes things play out that way.  But most times, in America, there's enough prosperity to go around.  We can celebrate Kwanzaa without taking away one single Christmas tree or piece of tinsel.  We can recognize the right of all people to marry without lessening the value of your marriage or anyone else's.  One person can make a pile of money and their next door neighbor can go out and make a different pile in a completely different way.  We are not a "zero sum" nation.

The narrative of fear is not going away.  It's too easy and too tempting to tap into.  Watch the coverage coming out of conservative outlets and you'll see these themes play out over and over again.  You can't reason with fear.  You have to reject it.  Face it head-on and reject the fear-baiting. And don't let anybody tell you that standing up for your beliefs (and the rights of others to live according to theirs) makes you weak.


  1. Well written, Michael. I have never understood the fear of difference, because I personally embrace it. I find difference and change exciting, which I realize is not the same for all. I constantly strive to understand the motivations that drive people and boy, is that ever hard. Different strokes for different folks (thank you, Sly Stone.)

    I have been invited to several Facebook group pages from either high school classmates or folks from my little Midwestern town. I invariably leave the groups because they all want to re-live the past. They consider them the glory days and they constantly bemoan their loss. Me? I say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good-bye. I think fondly of some old days, I even miss them sometimes, but I try to be forward-looking and realize I have to learn from the past, live in the present and use what I've learned to make a better future if it is to happen.

    Yesterday as I was walking across Glendale Community College's campus (my workplace) I was struck by the diversity of the students and staff walking with me. I heard three different languages in my short walk across the quad. What a wonderful thing, and I can tell you most of the employees I know consider this diversity our strength. It is a beautiful thing.

    How can I help spread the message that diversity and change are OK and even wonderful? If nothing else, they are inevitable. I will take your advice and continue to monitor my reaction to the fear-baiting, and I will always try to find the courage to speak up, act up and stand up for my beliefs.

    1. Hi Brenda! Thank you for the read and the kind words. I've been all over the world, and in those travels, I've come to learn, as you have, that diversity is not threatening and people everywhere are pretty much the same. They just want to live a happy, safe, fruitful life.

      As far as the cure, I don't possess the wisdom, I'm afraid, to write that prescription. But I think a lot about this quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

      We can't all travel, and we certainly can't force others to do so, but we can bring more of the world to our communities and our neighbors. Exposure is a disinfectant. In some ways, it was the key to Dr King's movement. He put himself and the faces of the Civil Rights movement on television every day. Through repeated and continuous exposure, the mythology and fear-based hate crumbled in the daylight. People can dehumanize and objectify other groups in the abstract. But it's much harder when they are living and breathing in front of you. Thanks again!