“Magic Glasses:” The Marginalized Know Better (Pt. 3 in a series on critical thinking)

magic glasses March

These past two weeks (see here and here), I’ve been addressing the question of critical thinking in a post-fact age of “fake news.”

So far, my argument has invited readers to recognize a hierarchy of truths, viz. that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. Most academics are reluctant to recognize that hierarchy. As thorough post-moderns, hey advocate what Ken Wilber calls “aperspectival madness.” It holds that every perspective is as good as any other.

By rejecting such insanity, the task of critical education becomes helping people move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to (at least) acquaintance with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

And it’s here that I find the concept of “magic glasses” (which will figure in the title of my book) relevant to the task at hand. Baba Dick Gregory uses the phrase to refer to the perspective conferred by movement from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. According to Gregory, such advance is like donning special eyewear that enables one to perceive what is invisible or absurd to those without them.

Magic glasses, the Baba warns, are both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that eyesight through magic glasses is fuller, and more evolved – more worthy of human beings. The curse is that those without the glasses will consider their wearers insane or worse. The hell of it is that glassless folk cannot be persuaded unless their independent growth cycle enables them to do so.

So, Gregory points out, the magic glasses come with three inviolable rules: (1) once you put them on, you may never take them off, (2) afterwards, you can never see things as your tribe says they’re supposed to be, but only as they truly are, and (3) you can never force anyone else to wear them.

My own experience confirms Gregory’s insight. It suggests that our lives’ journeys, our lived experiences, achieving critical distance from families and cultures, along with our encounters with great teachers, can all help us gain higher levels of consciousness better able to grasp more evolved levels of critical thinking.

In my own case, exposure to critical thought as explained, practiced and stimulated outside the U.S. during my graduate studies in Rome and across Europe helped me gain distance from U.S.-fostered ethnocentrism.

But so did what I learned in former European colonies like Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, and India. Thinkers and activists there gradually raised my critical awareness that the Global South’s “alternative facts” about economics and history underpin any critical thought worthy of the name. I was actually privileged to meet directly with people like  Paulo Freire, Desmond Tutu, Maria Lopez Vigil, Dom Helder Camara, Miguel D’Escoto, bell hooks, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, and Enrique Dussel, and Rubem Alvez.

All of them taught me that the Global South and impoverished perspective tends to be fuller than its developed world counterpart.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable actually have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without consciousness of the poor at all. Wall Street executives rarely really see them. The poor are located in other parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never considered the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, they can remain mere abstractions. None of us knows what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

Even in practical spheres of daily living, the marginalized and poor know more. They typically can grow their own food, repair their machines, take care of animals, and just “make do” and survive in ways that would soon become apparent to all of us if the electricity stopped working for a few days.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

For me, benefitting from the perspective of the world’s conscientized majority, and reading their philosophers, theologians, activists, and social analysts has turned my own perspective upside-down. It has changed my understanding of history, economics, politics – and especially of theology and God-talk.

Such upside-down vision will be the heart of my book on critical thinking. It has suggested the following truth criteria: (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Expect Challenge, (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-sect Violence, (8) Connect with your deepest self, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

Over the next weeks, I’ll try and develop each of those “rules for critical thinking.” But before I get there, I want to tell you more about “fake news” and my own journey.

(Next week: Plato’s Fake World)

There Really Are Alternative Facts (2nd in a Series on Critical Thinking)

wilbers-stages

Clearly our culture and the world have entered uncharted territory with the announcement from multiple sources that we’ve entered a post-fact world of fake news. Nowadays, it seems, one person’s truth is another’s propaganda. In such a world, critical thinking is either essential or irrelevant.

I hold for the former.

I believe that truth is relevant, that facts exist, and that the facts of some are truer than those of others. At the same time, however, I recognize that my own understanding of “fact” has changed drastically over the course of my life. What I once fervently embraced as truth, I no longer accept. Something similar, I think, is true for all of us. As Paul of Tarsus put it in his letter to Christians in Corinth 2000 years ago: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (ICOR 13:11)

Paul’s insight holds for western culture as well, including the scientific community. It readily admits that facts change. For instance, scientists once universally accepted as absolute fact that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo changed all of that.

And that brings me to what I wrote last week about those essential elements of critical thinking: world-centrism, evidence, comprehensiveness, and commitment.

As for world-centrism, the argument here begins by noting that truth is largely relative. Our perception of it often depends on our stage of personal development – on the degree of evolution we’ve attained. What’s true for children (think Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) is not true for adults. This by no means invalidates what children think. Their insights are often more acute than grownups’.

On the other hand, however, there are hierarchies of truth. While honoring children’s perceptions, adults cannot generally operate on the basis of what youngsters believe about the world. Neither do all (even very sincere) adults enjoy the same credibility. Some of them are more mature than others – more highly evolved at least in their chosen fields. Einstein, for instance, enjoyed high credibility in the field of physics. He also played the violin. However, his credibility in the field of music didn’t begin to approach that of Jascha Heifetz. It’s the same with other endeavors. Expertise matters.

Recognizing such relativity makes us realize that we do actually inhabit a world of “alternative facts.” But not all fact-claims have the same value. To separate true from less true and truth from falsehood, we must exercise extreme care. Recognizing the previously mentioned truth-hierarchies associated with universal stages of personal development is part of that process.

Philosopher Ken Wilber identifies four major stages of personal development or evolution. The perceptions of higher stages are superior to their lower-stage counterparts. Children, Wilber notes, tend to be egocentric. As such, their world and judgments tend to revolve around themselves, their feelings, needs and naïve beliefs.

In early adolescence or sooner, their scope of concern begins to widen towards group identification or ethnocentrism. They identify with their family, church, school, town, teams, and country. Relative to nation, the attitude here can be as narrow as “My country, right or wrong.” Many people never move beyond ethnocentrism. And in practice, their tribal superiority complex often leads to what Wilber calls “dominator hierarchies,” where control extends beyond the abstract realm of “truth” and “facts” to the politics of imperialism, war, and even slavery.

Those who move beyond ethnocentrism advance to the next evolutionary stage, world-centrism. Here allegiance shifts from my tribe and country to the world and human race. At this stage it becomes possible to criticize even habitually one’s tribe and country from the viewpoint of outsiders, “foreigners,” and independently verifiable data. Dominator hierarchies become less acceptable.

A final (as far as we can tell) stage of development is cosmic-centrism or what Wilber terms “integral thinking.” The cosmic-centric thinker is a mystic, who realizes the unity of all reality, animate and inanimate. (S)he holds that separation between human beings and their environment is only apparent. As many of them put it, “There is really only one of us here.”

The crucial point to note in this context, is that each of these developmental stages has its set of “alternative facts.”

Take the question of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience. According to many observers, Mr. Trump has largely been fixated at the stage of egocentrism (with, no doubt, ethnocentrism rising). Accordingly, he evidently thinks that because of his exceptionality, brilliance, and importance, his crowd must have been larger than that of President Obama, because the latter isn’t nearly as important or smart as Mr. Trump. At Trump’s stage of development, his perception constitutes a fact, pure and simple. Those who disagree are disseminating fake news.

For their parts, the dissenters – reporters, for instance – are usually ethnocentric. In the United States, they typically report from an “American” point of view. They regard Mr. Trump’s statements about crowd size as lies, since his assertions do not agree with readily available independent data information. As previously noted, the D.C. police, for instance, say that Mr. Obama’s crowd was four times larger than Mr. Trump’s. Moreover, ethnocentric reporters regard Mr. Trump’s lies as particularly egregious, because the falsehoods bring discredit and shame on the United States, which they consider the greatest and most virtuous country in the world.

Those with world-centric consciousness subscribe to yet another set of alternative facts. While agreeing that independent data is important for “fact checking,” they emphatically disagree with the premise that the United States is exceptional in its greatness or virtue. Simply put, it is not the greatest country in the world. Instead, for many (especially in the Global South with its history of U.S.-supported regime changes, wars, and dictatorships), fact-checked data show that the United States is the cause of most of the world’s problems. In the words of world-centric Martin Luther King, it is the planet’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” That recognition shapes and relativizes every other judgment of fact.

Cosmic-centered thinkers profoundly disagree with the so-called “facts” of all three previous stages of development. Nonetheless, they recognize that all human beings – and they themselves – must pass through the stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism before arriving at cosmic-centrism. That is, though most humans do not surpass ethnocentrism, no stage can be skipped. One cannot become world-centric without having previously been ethnocentric. One cannot adopt a cosmic-centered viewpoint, without first having traversed the world-centric stage. So, instead of anger, those with cosmic consciousness experience great compassion, for instance, towards Donald Trump and his critics both patriotic and more cosmopolitan.

Nonetheless, mystics approaching “facts” from their particular altitude insist that antecedent stages of awareness, though true in ways appropriate for those phases, are at best incomplete. All of them are incapable of discerning the Universe’s single most important truth that renders all else highly misleading. And that’s the fact is that all consciousness of separation is itself an illusion. Hence the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience is completely irrelevant. But so are questions about “the greatest country in the world.” No country is greater than any other. In the end, the only truth is God and divine love. Nationalist separation, fear, war, hatred, and associated attitudes are all false. They remain without factual support.

What I’m saying here is that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. In that light, the ultimate task of critical thinking is to help practitioners move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to at least acquaint them with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

In the terms just explained, what stage of evolutionary development are you?  Where do you think most of your friends are located?

(Next week: Why the world’s impoverished know more than Americans)

Go Ahead: Blame My Crazy Thinking on Poetry! (Personal Reflections, Pt. VIII)

Golden Treasury

I skipped this “personal reflections” blog entry last week, because of a delightful visit by our four grandchildren over their spring break from Montessori School. So I was out scootering on Berea’s campus, eating ice cream, making breakfast pancakes, playing “Candyland,” and generally horsing around  for a week with Eva (age 7), Oscar (5), Orlando (3), and Markandeya (1 ½).  It was all great fun – unforgettable moments to treasure now and anticipate in the future.

It was all much more rewarding even than fashioning a blog entry, which I also love to do – though not nearly as much as being “Baba” for those four.

In the meantime, I heard from friends who could relate personally to what I had written about my best college professor, Fr. James Griffin. More than one former classmate had similar reminiscences of “Tiffer” (as we used to call him). Others with different backgrounds recalled professors like him who were  demanding, uncompromising , and (above all) eye-opening about literature, images, metaphors, similes, that (in the Tiff’s words) “capture, contain, and communicate” the reality they symbolize.

Many of us were also blessed with teachers of rhetoric who demanded short sentences confined as much as possible to subject-verb-object constraints (SVO! SVO!).

Such exchanges with friends made me realize that I could blame Fr. Griffin for the “Hamilton” fiasco I recounted at the beginning of this series.

Remember that Fr. Griffin had us wearing out our paperback Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. We had to read and reread those metaphysical poets, keeping track of the images they used and finding new meaning in those word-pictures each time. Similarly we combed through Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and others. We learned to interact with their characters and talk about their thoughts, actions and motives as though those fictional women, children, and men were agents of flesh and blood. (I remember falling in love with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and Nancy in Oliver Twist.)

Such readings had us constantly looking below the surface for hidden meanings and feeling triumphant and increasingly confident when we discovered them.

And there’s the “Hamilton” connection. My response to the play wasn’t the first time my children objected to my diving below the surface to reach some “outlandish” conclusion. For instance, I remember us arguing about my take on Tom Hanks’ “Captain Philips.” I saw it as a typical self-congratulatory “cavalry to the rescue” story that demeans indigenous people while exalting the U.S. military. (You can read my review here.)

Such “readings” of literature – and life – are guided by questions like these:

  • What’s really being said here?
  • What’s not being said?
  • What’s apparent?
  • What’s not?
  • Whose class interests are being served here – the oppressors’ or that of the oppressed?
  • What’s the ideology behind this presentation?
  • Does it support the status quo or subvert it?
  • How does this relate to history as told by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or by Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, or by Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, or of Monica Sjoo’s The Great Cosmic Mother?
  • What can I learn from this about my own life?

That’s the sort of thing I began to learn from Fr. Griffin during my freshman and sophomore years at our seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. Later on, people called it “critical thinking.”  And (to be truthful), the approach sunk in only gradually over the years. I mean it’s not like I suddenly became a critical thinker as a college freshman or sophomore. On the contrary, I was mostly reluctant to challenge received wisdom. Remember I was trying to be an obedient model seminarian who followed all the rules.

(Next week: Learning to Read Even the Bible with Critical Perspective)

Critical Thinking: Where I’m Coming From

[This is the fifth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Today’s blog post begins explaining my second rule for critical thought, “Expect Challenge: Questioning the ‘Ruling Group Mind’” I open the topic with an autobiographical explanation of why I approach critical thought the way I do.]

Let me tell you where I’m coming from when it comes to critical thinking.

I am a field researcher whose travels have been inspired by concerns about Peace and Justice Studies – a program which I helped found and direct at Berea College in Kentucky. My research “digs” began in Rome where many years ago I spent half a decade doing graduate work, and where I first encountered Third World colleagues who raised deep questions about my own perceptions of reality.

Subsequently, my pursuit of intellectual archeology took me all over Europe – most notably to Soviet Poland – and then to Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, India, Palestine-Israel, and Cuba. Over the years, I’ve taught as well in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica, where I’ve also worked with a think tank, the Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), in San Jose.

In all those places I’ve found that developing world thinkers are far ahead of would-be progressives in the United States. Third World scholars know all about colonialism, neo-colonialism, the CIA and its coups, as well as its support of dictators and right-wing counter revolutions around the world.

In the Third World, university students also know about the IMF and its disastrous Structural Adjustment Policies – terms which often raise nothing more than quizzical looks from U.S. audiences. So there’s no need in most Third World settings to argue about the pros and cons of corporate globalization and its effects on the world’s majority. For them the argument was long ago settled.

None of that is true in the United States. Here higher education largely ignores the Third World, where most people live. Most college classes overlook its rich traditions, indigenous scholarship, and progressive thinking. (I even once had a well-meaning colleague respond to similar observations on my part by admitting, “I didn’t know there were any Third World scholars.”) In the United States, the so-called “developing world” is seen as a center of self-induced misery, population problems, food-shortages, and inexplicable revolutions and genocides. Alternatively, the Third World is seen as the undeserving recipient of largesse on the part of the United States understood as the Santa Claus of the world

In the light of history and political realism, I’ve concluded that clearing up such misunderstandings should be Job #1 for post-secondary educators concerned with critical thinking. Doing so entails questioning the unquestionable and broadening students’ horizons to embrace what most thinkers in the Third World recognize as simply given.

To begin with, critical thinking must question the “of course” convictions that belong to American culture – to any culture. As noted earlier, Plato referred to such unquestioned beliefs with the Greek word, doxa. Its power is conveyed by his familiar “Allegory of the Cave.” There the human condition is portrayed in terms of prisoners chained in a cavern where their only experience of reality (including themselves) is conveyed by shadows produced by their manipulative captors.

Plato’s allegory finds its counterpart in American culture, including the prevailing system of education. Typically what happens in the classroom predisposes students to accept what John McMurtry of the University of Guelph (in Canada) calls “Ruling Group Mind” which is largely set by the parameters of generally admissible political opinion. Within such confines, the United States is seen as the best country in the world. Its overriding concern is with democracy, peace, justice and human rights. Its wars are fought in the interests of peace. God is on its side. “Of course!” we all agree.

Such naiveté is revealed in the second episode of the HBO series, “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering a question posed by a bright American college student: “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered.

Daniels’ answer captures the realism of what I consider a major goal of critical thinking.

(Next week: Unveiling the uniquely narrow U.S. spectrum of debate)

Critical Thinking: Mixed Economies Are All We Have

Mixed Economy

[This is the fourth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous two entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. So having already dealt with capitalism, the last installment tried to explain Marxism, socialism and communism in fewer than 1000 words. This week’s episode finishes Rule One by explaining mixed economy and fascism in just three points each. Next time we’ll move on to the second rule of critical thinking, “Expect Challenge.”]

MIXED ECONOMY

Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, the world as a whole has moved away from attempts to implement either pure capitalism or pure socialism. Instead, the trend virtually everywhere has been towards selecting the best elements from each system in a “mixed economy.” As the phrase implies, this involves (1) some private ownership of the means of production and some public ownership, (2) some free and open markets and some controlled markets, and (3) earnings typically limited by a progressive income tax.

Of course what we have in the United States is a highly mixed economy. The U.S. government is, after all, the largest land owner in the nation. Drug, alcohol, food, and medical care markets (and many others) are highly regulated. Following World War II, Americans earning more than $400,000 were taxed at a rate of 91%. Currently, the top income tax bracket is 34%. None of that would be possible under pure free market capitalism.

Similarly, countries claiming to be “socialist” (like Venezuela) or “communist” (like Cuba) have mixed economies. Private enterprise is a key part of both.

Does this mean that the economic systems of the United States and Cuba for example are the same? Not at all. True, both economies are “mixed.” But they differ in terms of whom they are mixed in favor of. The United States economy is mixed in favor of the wealthy and corporations. This is illustrated by consideration of the recipients of recent government bailouts – basically large corporations and Wall Street firms rather than middle or lower class people. The theory at work here is “trickle down.” That is, it is believed that if the wealthy prosper, they won’t hide their money under their mattresses. Instead they’ll invest. Investment will create jobs. Everyone will benefit. So mixing an economy in favor of the wealthy is not sinister; it’s done for the benefit of all.

Cuba, for instance, has a different approach. Its theoreticians observe that historically the wealth hasn’t trickled down – at least not to people living in the Third World (the former colonies). So, (the theory goes) the economy must be mixed directly in favor of the poor majority. The government must adopt a proactive posture and interfere directly in the market to make sure that everyone has free education (even through the university level), free health care, and retirement pensions. Food is subsidized to ensure that everyone eats. And the government is the employer of last resort to provide dignified employment for everyone, so that Cubans are not simply on the dole.

In summary, then, all we have in the world are “mixed economies.” Today, most of them are mixed in favor of the wealthy (once again, on the “trickle-down” theory). Some, like Cuba’s, prioritize the needs of the poor.

FASCISM

What about fascism then? Today the word is thrown around on all sides, and seems to mean “people I disagree with,” or “mean people,” or “those who force their will on the rest of us.” There’s talk of Islamo-fascists. President George W. Bush was accused of being a fascist. Recently President Obama has been similarly labeled.
None of those really capture the essence of fascism. Benito Mussolini, who claimed fascism as a badge of honor in the 1930s (along with Adolph Hitler in Germany, Antonio Salazar in Portugal, and Francisco Franco in Spain), called fascism “corporatism.” By that he meant an alliance between government and large business concerns or corporations.

In terms of Rule One of Critical Thinking, then, we might understand fascism as “capitalism in crisis” or “police state capitalism.” That is fascism is the form capitalism has historically taken in situations of extreme crisis, as occurred in the 1930s following the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.

More accurately however (in the light of our previous section on mixed economies), we might call fascism police state economy mixed in favor of the wealthy. Fascists are always anti-socialist and anti-communist.

The three elements of fascism then include: (1) A police state (2) enforcing an economy mixed in favor of large corporations, (3) characterized by extreme anti-socialism and anti-communism, and by scapegoating “socialists,” “communists” and minorities (like Jews, blacks, gypsies, homosexuals . . .) for society’s problems.

HUMAN RIGHTS

Both economies mixed in favor of the rich and those mixed in favor of the poor claim to respect human rights. They also blame their opponents for not following suit. The truth is, however, that both types of economies both respect and disrespect human rights. That is, despite claims to the contrary, no system of political-economy has shown consistent respect for all human rights. Instead all systems prioritize them according to what they consider the most basic. This means that capitalism respects some human rights more than others. So does socialism.

Capitalism puts at the top of its list the rights to private property, the right to enter binding contracts and have them fulfilled, as well as the right to maximize earnings. These rights even belong to corporations which under capitalism are considered persons.

On the other hand, capitalism’s tendency is to deny the legitimacy of specifically human rights as recognized, for example, by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. For this reason, the United States has never ratified key protocols implementing the Declaration, or other key documents asserting rights beyond the corporate. Moreover, if capitalism’s prioritized rights are threatened, all others are subject to disregard, including the rights to free elections, speech, press, assembly, religion, and freedom from torture. Historical references in the blog entries which follow this one will support that observation.

Similarly, socialism heads its own list with the rights to food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. In the name of those rights, socialism relativizes rights to private ownership and the rights to enter binding contracts, and to maximize earnings. If the rights socialism considers basic are threatened, history has shown that it too, like capitalism, will disregard all others.

CONCLUSION

What’s the “take-away” from all of this? Simply this: capitalism is both a simple and complicated system; so is socialism. Both can be summarized quite simply, as can mixed economies, Marxism, communism, and fascism. Capitalism respects some human rights, while disregarding others. The same can be said of socialism and systems that call themselves “communist.”

Critical thinkers should remember those simple summaries and truths about human rights. Doing so will help cut through many of the misunderstandings and distortions that characterize discussion of today’s key issues.

The First Rule of Critical Thinking: Think Systemically (about Capitalism)

This is the second blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought: (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Expect challenge, (3) Reject neutrality, (4) Suspect ideology, (5) Respect history, (6) Inspect scientifically, (7) Quadra-sect violence, (8) Connect with your deepest self, (9) Detect silences, (10) Collect conclusions. The series was inspired by responses to my April 16th reflections on the Boston Marathon bombing.

THINK SYSTEMICALLY

The first rule of critical thinking as understood in this series is to think systemically. This is a ground-clearing rule. Its point is to clarify the vocabulary and concepts without which you’ll not be able to think critically about the most important issues facing our world today. You can’t think about poverty, hunger, war, climate change, healthcare, education, or a host of other problems without clear understandings of the basic economic concepts presented here. Without them, you’ll be thrown for a loop; your eyes will glaze over when conversation turns economic. And economics, remember, is the principal language spoken in the world of politics and newscasts.

Think about what’s happened since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. With the implementation of bailout programs, and discussion of “Obamacare,” there has been a lot of talk about “socialism,” hasn’t there? This has come along with accusations about “Marxism,” “communism,” “fascism” – all in a context that supposes the superiority of “capitalism.” The discussions have rarely recognized the universal prevalence of “mixed economies.” Instead, the discourse has illustrated huge divergences of understanding and opinion about the meaning of all the terms just placed in quotation marks.

Most debate participants simply do not have clear ideas about their meaning. They are convinced, of course, that communism is bad, and that capitalism is good. Beyond that however, ideas remain confused. Most are even unaware that all the terms mentioned describe positions adopted towards the free market economic system.

It is the modest, yet ambitious, purpose of the explanation of this first rule of critical thinking to clear up confusion simply by defining terms in an easy- to- understand way. Doing so is absolutely necessary for any critical thinker to join productive discussions about our days’ most important issues. So, oversimplifying for purposes of discussion and clarity, what follows will summarize the crucial categories in three points each, beginning with capitalism, and then moving on to Marxism, socialism, mixed economy, communism, and fascism.

Today’s blog entry will define capitalism in this way.

CAPITALISM

Liberal capitalism is an economic system based on (1) private ownership of the means of production (2) free and open markets (places where goods are bought and sold), and (3) unlimited earnings. Those are the three points.
Private ownership of the means of production dictates that individuals should be empowered to own fields, forests, farms, factories and other sources of products for sale and exchange. Communal ownership is thus excluded. That’s capitalism’s first point.

Free and open markets means that private ownership should permit those in question to produce what they choose to produce, where and when they choose to do so, employing whom they choose, without any power outside of market forces of supply and demand dictating that production. Here government interference in the market by way, for instance, of outlawing or controlling some productions (such as liquor or cigarettes) and mandating others (such as beans and rice) is rejected. Moreover, anyone at all should be able to enter an open market regardless of personal attributes such as race, age, gender, nationality, or religion. In all this emphasis on “freedom,” we find expressed the “liberal” nature of “liberal capitalism.” That’s capitalism’s second point: free and open markets.

Finally, liberal capitalism calls for unlimited earnings. That is, the producer’s talent and the quality of her or his product alone should limit the income goals attainable. Limits on earnings such as taxes should be kept to the minimum necessary to provide public protection of private property (police, military, the judicial system) and to supply the infrastructure necessary for commerce (roads, bridges, etc.) That’s capitalism’s third point: unlimited earnings.

Income ceilings, of course, are out of the question for capitalism strictly understood. For capitalists wide disparities between the rich and the poor are not a problem. And some might even admit to greed as a kind of virtue that is responsible for human progress. That idea was captured in the film, “Wall Street,” where entrepreneur, Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas), praises greed in a speech before the stockholders of his company, Teldar Paper Company:

These words, of course, not only praise greed in business, but in national life. Echoing the words of economist Milton Friedman (at the top of this blog entry) and ignoring the fact that in the past greed was considered by Christians one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Gecko claims that greed leads to salvation. It will not only save his business from low returns on the Stock Market, but the United States itself from what ails it as well. For Gecko and Friedman greed is the virtue at the heart of capitalism. It’s what makes the world go ’round.

(Next week: Marxism in three easy points)

Series on Critical Thinking, Part One: It’s Not What You Think!

Plato's tv cave

This is the first in a series on critical thinking. Its immediate inspiration was the controversy on this blog site sparked by my April 16th entry on the Boston Marathon bombing (see below on this site). Many of the most critical responses showed that their authors did not understand where I was coming from in terms of my own remarks about severity and the “blowback” nature of the tragedy in Boston. I had written that the Boston tragedy was minor compared to the havoc wrought virtually every day in the Muslim world by U.S. drone attacks. Moreover those attacks by U.S. weapons of mass destruction evoked anger and desire for revenge on the parts of their victims. So “Americans,” I suggested, should expect more tragedies like Boston.

In truth, my point of departure was not (as some critics alleged or implied) anti-Americanism or insensitive gloating over the sufferings of the Marathon victims. Far from it, I love the United States; it is my place of birth; I consider myself highly patriotic. Like most people in the world, my heart went out to the dead, maimed and injured in Boylston Square.

However, I am also a teacher of critical thinking and have been for more than 40 years. During that time I’ve developed criteria – 10 of them – for thinking critically about history, politics, economics and religion. For me the essence of critical thought entails the ability to judge oneself (and one’s country) as objectively as possible (i.e. without ego-centrism or ethnocentrism). To that end, the criteria I’ve developed include

1. REFLECT SYSTEMICALLY
2. EXPECT CHALLENGE
3. REJECT NEUTRALITY
4. SUSPECT IDEOLOGY
5. RESPECT HISTORY
6. INSPECT SCIENTIFICALLY
7. QUADRA-SECT VIOLENCE
8. CONNECT WITH YOUR DEEPEST SELF
9. DETECT SILENCES
10. COLLECT CONCLUSIONS

As anyone can see, such criteria are not those one ordinarily finds in critical thinking textbooks – at least not those historically employed at Berea College where I taught for more than 36 years. Standard approaches provide tools for analyzing the thinking process itself. They instruct students in logic, common fallacies, and how to evaluate statements, evidence, statistics and information. Diagrams used to illustrate this understanding of critical thinking often look like the following:

critical-thinking

In many ways “thinking about thinking” accurately describes the project pictured above. According to this understanding, thinking critically is about thought processes and their logic. Once articulated and clarified, the new understandings are applied to cases such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration, and war. Without doubt, this understanding of the discipline is valuable and necessary for any serious scholarship or indeed for responsible citizenship.

However, the problem with this kind of thinking is that it can ignore questioning its own “parameters of perception.” It can work within cultural, institutional and ideological premises that largely remain unquestioned. It can proceed quite successfully without seriously questioning or even acknowledging the possibility of alternatives to existing ideologies, laws, institutions, power relationships, and customs. One can think about the Marathon bombing, for instance, without considering the accuracy of one’s accepted historical narrative about the role of the United States in the world or about the “institutional violence” that might have provoked the atrocity.

By way of contrast, critical thinking as explored in this series will address such neglected elements. The operative image here will be Plato’s Cave. Its representation looks like this:

PlatoCave

About 2500 years ago Plato described the human condition as characterized by a tragic absence of critical thought as I’m proposing it here. We live, Plato said, like people in a cave where they’ve been imprisoned all their lives. They remain there chained in a way that prevents them from moving about. They face a wall unable to move even to see directly the others who like them are chained alongside. However the wall the prisoners face is not blank. This is because a fire burns behind the captives and casts their shadows on the wall much as a movie projector would in a dark theater. And that’s their only image of themselves – shadows.

However other shadows appear on the wall as well. They are cast by people walking behind the prisoners along the “roadway” pictured above. The walkers carry statues of all kinds of things – animals, trees, gods . . . . Viewing those shadows, the prisoners think that life is unfolding before them. Moreover, the “wise” among the prisoners – the teachers – become very good at describing the shadows and at predicting the sequence of their appearance. In terms relevant here, their discourses are taken as expressions of “critical thought.” However, their wisdom describes shadows in an artificial world.

Eventually one of the prisoners escapes the cave and discovers the real world and the sun which makes life possible. The escapee returns to the cave to inform the prisoners of this discovery. The escapee’s intention is to introduce real “criticism.” Far from welcoming him, the other prisoners threaten to kill him.

Plato, of course, was writing about his mentor, Socrates whom the citizens of 5th century BCE Athens actually did kill for teaching what I’m calling here “critical thinking.” They interpreted his project as “corrupting the youth,” because it called into question the “doxa” of their day. The Greek term, doxa, referred to the “of course” statements that go unquestioned everywhere. Our culture is full of them: “The United States” is the best country in the world.” Of course it is! “Ours is the highest standard of living.” Of course! “’We’ are good; ‘they’ are evil.” Of course!

The critical thinking I intend to pursue here is about critiquing doxa; it’s about questioning parameters of perception; it’s about escaping the cave.

More specifically, what I intend to expose here attempts to provide tools for subjecting society’s underlying narratives, along with its economic and political structures and ideologies to careful yet easily accessible analysis. Moreover, it starts not from a place of supposed neutrality, but from a place of commitment to a world with room for everyone. Commitment in one form or another is inescapable.

Consequently this approach to critical thought not only analyzes reasons for such commitment; it evaluates as well ideologies that contradict that vision. This approach will be historical and involve examination of “official” and “competing” narratives about the past. It will treat violence as a multi-dimensional phenomenon connected with structures of political economy, the struggle for survival, and police enforcement of “rules of the game” that benefit some and hurt others. The approach centralized here will give key importance to spirituality and the clear articulation of conclusions about the world and the historical patterns at work there.

My approach will also recognize that some of the best and most engaging stimuli for critical thought are can be found in popular culture’s most powerful and engaging medium, Hollywood film, as well as from outstanding documentaries. So most blog entries on this topic will include film illustration.

My hope is that readers will find these Wednesday blog entries interesting and helpful and worthy of their “critical” feedback.