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Whoever wins, utilitarians will survive Election Day

October 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Election Day promises seismic change. Not that we haven’t heard that before.

For utilitarians, the political landscape may seen depressing. Campaign rhetoric has been full of flame-throwing and short on facts — perhaps no different from past years but held under a magnifying glass this time around. And the candidates’ capacity for sheer ignorance — from Sharron Angle’s take on “autism” and maternity leave to Rand Paul’s scientifically unsound medical views to Christine O’Donnell’s every word — is dispiriting.

We’ll also see several decent Congressfolks tossed out with the bathwater. Acting for the general good often fails to pay for politicians, and this election is likely to be a bloodbath for those who tried. Several politicians tried to steer the middle course, giving enough of a stimulus to stave off further calamity but not enough to rev up the debt much more. A lot of them will be voted out on Tuesday. That’ll mostly be Democrats, but a few Republicans have already lost their jobs to one of those periodic “RINO” hunts.

Given all that, how is a utilitarian supposed to stay optimistic?

The answer is found in history. And outside government.

If you’ve studied British history, you may have wondered how England, Scotland and Ireland ever contributed anything to the world while being ruled by a succession of scumbags through centuries of pointless wars. And yet they did. Writers make compelling cases that the Irish saved civilization and the Scottish modernized it. (The English contributed as well, but historians haven’t found a way to paint them as plucky underdogs.)

We’ve been doing that in the USA as well. Our most fruitful musical period rose out of a more turbulent time than we’re seeing today. Businesses are going “green” even if the government isn’t. As a society, we’re far more tolerant of diversity today than we were 50 years ago. Medical researchers are flirting with wonders beyond imagination, cranking out a miraculous H1N1 flu vaccine recently and continuing to refine treatment for everything from cancer to mental illness. (The common cold still proves elusive, unfortunately.)

This year, if you take away the overheated rhetoric about socialism and “Obamavilles,” the argument is over the role of government. The utilitarian agenda doesn’t depend on that.

The utilitarian agenda may overlap with the progressive agenda, but much of that agenda can be accomplished outside government. Businesses can reach overseas even if the government represents people who want to call the police every time a person of color walks by. Ending discrimination must take place in everyday business, not just in government. The economy and employment are ultimately in the hands of business, no matter what the government is or isn’t doing to keep it competitive. Nongovernmental organizations, including one led by former president Jimmy Carter, do amazing work overseas. Charities and private individuals aren’t powerless.

So congratulations in advance to those who are rising to power with an odd mix of populism that we all know is actually designed to take America back to some time that never really existed. Just remember that the wheels of progress keep turning for the betterment of all, not just you, and you’ll need more than 51 senators to stop them.

Jon Stewart and anger management

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Anger is inescapable in life. But a utilitarian prefers not to dwell on it. Utilitarians seek happiness, and angry people are generally unhappy. Often, anger is how unhappiness spreads — an unhappy person seeks a scapegoat for his/her unhappiness and then takes it out on someone else. As Marc Maron once said, it all somehow ends up in the Middle East.

Cable “news” and the Internet conduct anger as efficiently as copper wire conducts electricity. Lies and vitriol spread quickly, and it’s easy to forget that a plurality of people in this country ignore all of it.

Utilitarians, though, sometimes have to keep an eye on such things. We can’t completely ignore our role as watchdogs in a democracy. On a personal level, ignorance may be bliss; on a macro level, ignorance breeds hostility and erodes happiness.

This is where The Daily Show comes in handy. Jon Stewart and his staff effectively hold up society’s hostility and hysteria for the ridicule it deserves. We may get a little worked up over the latest howler from a politician or “news” network, but it’s healthier to laugh about it. The Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear should give us some healthy amusement — unless you’re a media pundit trying to ascertain its impact on the elections.

The best response, if you find some of your work targeted, is to laugh along with him. When Stewart caught Keith Olbermann going overboard, Olbermann fessed up and apologized with good humor. I don’t watch Olbermann, so I can’t vouch for any impact his epiphany had on his future work, but I’d have to think he at least stopped to think about it.

Stewart’s humor is the least mean-spirited response someone like Glenn Beck could possibly deserve. Stewart encourages us to see the humor, helping us take Beck’s anger-mongering less seriously and providing consolation that we can always find others who aren’t intent on yelling, screaming and manipulating our way through life.

And when a Fox anchor asks whether NPR is a “jihadist” organization, what other response would you rather have?

Maybe we’re laughing to keep from crying. But we’re also laughing to keep from lashing out. Either way, Stewart is a utilitarian’s best friend.

A utilitarian in traffic

October 1, 2010 Leave a comment

BEEEEP!! Are you kidding me? What the &*^(&*^(*$&*&@!!!

Americans’ overheated, irrational, anti-intellectual approach to politics can drive utilitarians insane. But at least we can escape from such nonsense most of the time. The people who spend their time shouting at each other need no further encouragement from us, and we don’t need to obsess over such things to determine how to vote or how to donate our money.

What we can’t escape, though, is traffic. And that’s where we so often see how we’ve lost sight of the greater good that utilitarians cherish.

The funny thing is that bad drivers aren’t just the selfish speeders who cut you off without thinking. Sometimes, they’re trying to be polite but haven’t really thought it through.

I often drive by a shopping center whose exit is near a busy intersection. The traffic flow works so that cars can often exit the shopping center when the light turns red. But I often see a car stopping to let someone out of the shopping center when the light is green.

“Oh, I’ll do something nice for this guy,” is what the stopped driver is surely thinking. But that driver is holding up 20 cars for the sake of letting one in. And that one will get in as soon as the light changes.

Another complication: Sometimes, cars leaving that shopping center need to cross multiple lanes. While one driver is stopped in one lane, drivers in the other lane are trying to make the light. So no one moves in the right lane.

And another twist: Sometimes, the car that ekes its way out of the shopping center is very slow to accelerate, as if pondering options. “Hmmm … do I really want to go straight? Maybe I’ll veer into this turn lane that just opened. No, maybe not. Hey, why are people honking at me?”

Nothing here is illegal. You have the right to poke your way through traffic, whether approaching an intersection or just moseying down a main road. You can even drive 50 mph in the left lane of the interstate.

But the world will be a happier place if you take into account the needs of the people behind you.

Especially if you’re just trying to show off your bumper sticker calling other people Nazis, socialists, targets for your beloved gun, etc.

(Yes, this post is grumpier than the tone I’m hoping to establish here. The next post will ask a question related to that tone: What is a utilitarian’s responsibility in confronting misguided people?)