August 31, 2006

Creating a Citizenry Ripe for Authoritarianism

John Dean's new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, warns that the conservative movement that has taken over our government is dangerous to our democracy. And he explains how the Republican Party has been taken over by authoritarians and they are doing whatever they can to create fear and loathing so that they can coerce people into supporting their message of "we need a strong authoritarian leader."

Expanding on Dean's description of the problem of authoritarianism encroaching into our civil society, are some of the incredible posts that Mrs Robinson has been writing over on David Neiwert's Orcinus blog. Her post yesterday was particularly insightful on one very plausible reason our country is increasingly at risk of losing our form of government, our rights and our civil liberties. It appears that our children are no longer given any instruction into our government or how it works. Here is what she said about the state of our civics education:

It turns out that civics classes the essential information one needs to function as a citizen have been gutted by tight school budgets over the past 20 years. As a result, we now have an entire generation of Americans who don't know how their government works, how the laws the live under get made, or what rights they have as citizens. They don't know who the Founders are, or what's in the Federalist Papers. They can't really articulate the Enlightenment ideals that led to the formation of this country. They are frighteningly ill-prepared to exercise or defend a birthright they don't even understand.

Small wonder, then, that the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that three-quarters of American high school students lacked basic proficiency in civics. According to a commentary published that year by William A. Galston of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland:

"...It is easy to dismiss these findings as irrelevant to the broader concerns with which I began. Who cares whether young people master the boring content of civics courses? Why does it matter whether they can identify their congressman or name the branches of government? Surprisingly, recent research documents important links between basic civic information and civic attributes that we have good reason to care about.

1. Civic knowledge promotes support for democratic values. The more knowledge we have of the working of government, the more likely we are to support the core values of democratic self-government, starting with tolerance.

2. Civic knowledge promotes political participation. All other things being equal, the more knowledge people have, the more likely they are to participate in civic and political affairs.

3. Civic knowledge helps citizens to understand their interests as individuals and as members of groups. There is a rational relationship between one's interests and particular legislation. The more knowledge we have, the more readily and accurately we connect with and defend our interests in the political process.

4. Civic knowledge helps citizens learn more about civic affairs. Unless we have a certain basis of knowledge, it is difficult to acquire more knowledge. The new knowledge we do gain can be effectively used if we are able to integrate it into an existing framework into an existing framework of knowledge.

5. The more knowledge we have of civic affairs, the less we have a sort of generalized mistrust and fear of public life. Ignorance is the father of fear, and knowledge is the mother of trust.

6. Civic knowledge improves the consistency of the views of people as expressed on public opinion surveys. The more knowledge people have, the more consistent their views over time on political affairs. This does not mean that people do not change their views, but it does mean that they know their own minds.

7. Civic knowledge can alter our opinion on specific civic issues. For example, the more civic knowledge people have, the less likely they are to fear new immigrants and their impact on our country."

Clearly, we are cheating our children and ourselves by not having civics a standard part of every child's education.

One other indication that our country is becoming increasingly authoritarian is the level of comfort people have with having their activities tracked. Tuesday's Morning Edition had a program that shocked me because I had no idea that people were so sanguine on spying on their teenaged children. Now it appears that the tools which have been handed to the government to keep track on our movements are now being used by parents to spy on their children.

For every mother who ever told her kids that she had eyes in the back of her head, modern technology can now do one better: It allows Mom and Dad to watch their kid's every move, even from across town. New gadgets can let parents know every time their children drive too fast or visit someone they shouldn't.

According to the piece what this technology helps promote is not a Big Brother state, but a Big Mother state.

Many experts believe such tracking devices will soon be as mainstream as cell phones themselves.

"I think, over time, parents will feel if they don't have this, they're not being good parents," says Jim Katz, Director of the Rutgers University Center for Mobile Communication Studies. He says that soon, tiny cameras -- like the ones in most new cell phones -- will enable parents to literally watch over their kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week-- and even eavesdrop on their conversations.

Yet psychiatrists don't think this is a good idea because the spying can backfire.

"When kids feel crowded, they tend to do things that they otherwise would not do," Shlozman says. "They take even greater risk because they have a desire to prove their independence and their individuality. There is something they need to get away with."

Shlozman says that tracking kids also undermines the trust that's critical to their development. He says kids need enough slack to learn to make good choices on their own, not just because they know Mom and Dad are watching.

"That's the moment of growth -- and you lose that if you monitor them, " Shlozman says, "They won't grow up; they'll get stuck developmentally."

This story gets right to the difference between the "strict parent (father)" and the "nurturant parent" styles that George Lakoff talks about in his thesis of the Family as a Metaphor. A strict parent doesn't believe the child can be trusted and so the parents must keep a vigilant eye on them and call them on their misdeeds whenever they step out of bounds. A nurturant parent believes that children are not naturally untrustworthy, but do need to learn to trust their own decisions. One of the best ways to destroy the child's ability to trust their own judgment is to show that you distrust their judgment by spying on them.

The fact that parents think that this is necessary shows to me that they lack empathy. To show how wrong this is, all one needs to do is to imagine what it would like if your boss was watching every move you made because you are considered untrustworthy. How many of us would feel good about ourselves or our jobs if that was the case for us?

So how do you teach children to trust their judgment? You make sure that you provide them experiences where they make decisions for themselves based on the maturity level that they have acheived. Even little children can make sound decisions and weigh into family choices. And by the time they are driving, you and your child should trust that they have a history of making good decisions, and they will continue to make good, thoughtful decisions going forward.

Our democracy depends on our believing that people can make good decisions. Norman Mailer was quite eloquent in this belief (via poputonian):

Democracy is built upon a notion that is exquisite and dangerous. It virtually states that if the will of the populace is freely expressed, more good than bad will result. When America began, it was the first time in the history of civilization that a nation dared to make an enormous bet founded on this daring notion--that there is more good than bad in people. Until then, the prevailing assumption had been that the powers at the top knew best; people were no good and had to be controlled.

Lakoff asserts that our families are healthier and happier if we follow the nurturant model. And I assert our country is also healthier and happier if we follow a democratic model. We need to figure out how to make fewer authoritarians and how to create more people who trust democracy if we really want to keep the one we were bequeathed by our founding fathers.

Posted by Mary at August 31, 2006 12:06 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

I cross-posted this comment at Orcinus

teh l4m3 wrote:
"One thing I've noticed, as a small-town librarian who
has access to a rich variety of local history, is that
there were a far greater number of adults who were active
members of local service organizations like the Rotary
club in the past -- 20 to 80 years ago --
than there are today..."

This phenomenon is what Robert Putnam writes about in
his book "Bowling Alone".

Civic classes are a good idea, but they don't teach a
democratic way of thinking that being involved in civic
organizations does. Now Americans are spending their
evenings in front of the tube, instead of being involved
in their communities. And even more tragically most children
are being raised on TV, so they never develop the thinking
skills and social skills needed to be effective citizens
of a democracy.

Posted by: Terry at September 3, 2006 10:50 PM