Monday, January 3, 2011

Five Questions for Edward "Ned" Downie, Satirist

Ned is thought to be hiding in Northwest Arkansas, where he is sought in connection with serial violations of the Elmore Leonard Rules. As the satirist member of the Northwest Arkansas Writers Workshop, his short stories have appeared in several anthologies.

We writers often meet for dinner before our regular Thursday night meetings. Often, the subject of politics arises, and I have found that some are happy to discuss opinions and others would prefer not. Ned has been someone with whom I've had several such discussions. Most are matter-of-fact and respectful, though a few have become heated enough that one or the other of us decided it best to bite our tongues. Ouch.

It has caused me some curiousity about political discussions and non-discussions. Why is it that politics (and religion) can be such a challenge to talk about?

In my humble opinion, it's because many of us believe we are right - that our "side" is the only side, and therefore, we owe no credence to what the other "side" thinks. To that, I quote Max Born:

The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, is the root of all evil in the world."

I thought I'd interview Ned about the subject. And, being one who sometimes has a hard time keeping my political mouth shut, I had to provide my own responses.  (Ned's answers are in blue and mine are in red.)

1) How do you define liberal and how do you define conservative?

George Lakoff does a good job of this in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff's all about metaphors (he's a linguist), which he says direct our thinking and hence our politics: specifically, which family-values metaphor we subscribe to.

A liberal is guided by a nurturant-parent metaphor, a conservative by a strict-father metaphor. Lakoff says all the various positions on abortion, taxation, the environment, foreign policy, gun control, and tort reform can be explained by which metaphor dominates.

If I piqued your interest, good. Read Lakoff's book. However, not entirely satisfied with Lakoff's explanation, I snatch up Occam's Razor, and, wielding it like Sweeney Todd, trim away the fuzzy indeterminacy to leave the bald difference between liberals and conservatives as a matter of susceptibility to the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

See Wikipedia for a discussion:
Fundamental Attribution Error

Basically, the FAE consists of seeing the causes of the behavior of others as being internal whereas the causes of one's own behavior are seen as external. In the words of Wikipedia, as a simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

Now, for example, leave Bob and consider a generic unemployed, homeless person. A liberal will tend to see:

A man down on his luck (there, but for the grace of God)
Misled by his government
Tricked and gulled by corporate interests
Lacking education
Lacking effective role models
Having the wrong skin color
Lacking powerful friends

In other words, someone who didn't do much wrong but got kicked around by a hostile environment.

Whereas a conservative will tend to see:

A man who lacks initiative
Lazy, avoids hard work
Expecting to be taken care of
Looking for a free lunch
A poor planner

In other words, someone whose internal, personal flaws have gotten him in trouble and he needs to experience the consequences of his actions or inactions to motivate him to change. So my conjecture is that conservatives tend to more susceptible to the Fundamental Attribution Error than liberals.

To me, what defines the difference between liberal and conservative philosophy is where a
person's beliefs fall in terms of personal responsibility vs. government responsibility.

I agree with the metaphor of liberal/nuturant-parent vs. conservative/strict-father, and will take the parent metaphor a bit further. I recall many times my parents said "no" to me when I wanted, no, NEEDED something. "We can't afford it," they'd patiently reply. As a pouty teenager, I was angry and probably thought I was the only one in the world who didn't get that pair of jeans, that ten speed, that car. My parents had to make the tough, but necessary decisions when funds were low.

I've seen examples of the liberal/nuturant-parent vs. conservative/strict-parent metaphor in conversations with Ned and other liberal friends and family members. In other words, I have at times felt they think too much with their hearts, and I think too much in a black and white logical manner, much like Ned's description of the poor man who tripped over a rock. Though perhaps for the sake of clarity, his example was presented too "black and white," in reality, most of us would see the tripper's situation in varying shades of gray, depending on where we fall on the liberal/conservative spectrum.

But as the fiscal state of the country worsens, my question about the role of government and the difficult choices it must make is, "Where is the money that we don't have supposed to come from?" Even if tax rates are raised on the "rich," cuts need to be made. I keep hearing my parents' answer. "Sorry, we can't afford it."

2) When did you first realize your political beliefs?

It was very early indeed. I can't remember a time before I reliably rooted for the underdog. I've always been conscious of class and how lucky I was to be born into the class I inhabit, and how unfair it was for others to have lacked my advantages--even to the point of feeling guilty about it. The very opposite of self-made, I'm other-made.

My liberalism is so embedded in my character, I can't imagine it's based on some experience or set of experiences--I think I must have been born this way.

Honestly, I don't think I really thought about my political views until I began to follow politics more closely during Clinton's presidency. However, when I think about my views of life prior to that, many of the characteristics I believe make me a conservative were born in me, then re-inforced by my upbringing and are now embedded in my character. I know there is always room for change and improvement, but those beliefs are part of the foundation of who I am.

3) It is difficult for people to discuss their political and/or religious differences, it isn't good for our society that we can't do so. What do you think is the cause of this? Any ideas how to resolve the lack of communication and miscommunication?

I agree, it's not good we can't talk. A psychologist named Sidney Jourard spent most of his professional career considering and writing about this issue. His best-known work is The Transparent Self. Jourard thought some of our mental health problems result from our concealment of who we are, and that people expend considerable energy in hiding. He further noted that others can't help us if we've hidden what we need.

Of course total transparency would allow our enemies to see how to hurt us, so it would be just as well to gradually emerge from concealment as our associates show that we can trust them.

I suppose it's an age-old problem - our inability, or unwillingness to discuss politics and religion. But it seems to me that it's gotten worse in the last decade, and I attribute much of it to the media. The line between news and opinion has gotten very blurred and much less objective, filled with the reporters' opinions. We each watch or read the news that affirms our beliefs. This makes our disagreement with "the other side" even more firm. The 24/7 news cycle, as well as the Internet, provides us with infinite sound bites and "facts" to back up our arguments, and in my discussions, I've seen an endless ping-pong-back-and-forth of those facts, with the participants in the discussion hardly paying attention to each other as they try to recall sound bites to support their "side." Rather than trying to learn something about why the other holds a certain opinion, we want to win the argument. And so, we our differences seem greater and greater, until compromise seems almost impossible.

As far as how to resolve the problem? We need to respect each other's opinions, not be afraid of differences, and understand that it's okay for someone to think differently.

I have learned a lot in my discussions/debates with my liberal friends/relatives. I'll even admit -- at times, I've changed some of my leanings about political issues because of it. Maybe I've even swayed their opinions a bit. This wouldn't have happened if we hadn't communicated about it.

4) If you could change one thing about a "the other side," what would it be?

I'd like them to be more willing to look at evidence rather than resorting to dogma, e.g., the primacy and inerrantcy of "free markets," the notion that climate change is not occurring, and even if it were, it's not human-caused.

What I'd like to change about some liberals is the same thing I'd like to change about some conservatives. I wish they weren't so angry and egotistical that they are unable to at least consider the "other side."

5) What is your primary news source? What news source do you follow for balance, if any?

The New York Times. I don't have a functioning TV set (except to play DVDs). Lately the blog Naked Capitalism. I use Google News to sample stories from sites I don't routinely visit.

I don't know anything about Fox News except what people tell me about it, but it's notorious among liberals for its (alleged) right-wing bias. For example, Andy Borowitz said the snow in New York was as white as a Glenn Beck rally.

I worry a lot about news and about the consolidation of various news sources into a few big players. Size frightens me, as does money, because if an entity has either, it can do pretty much as it damn pleases and I'll
have to suck it up.

Most people I'm close to (and those who follow my blog,) know I primarily watch Fox News. After some reluctance, I have admitted Fox does have a "right-leaning" approach, but I also think they present both sides of issues. Most of their programming includes discussions by someone on the left and the right. I also watch CNN and believe its reporting is fairly balanced. BBC gives a world perspective.

I sometimes force myself to watch MSNBC, to try to be open to the opinions of the left, as its programming definitely leans to the left. I will admit, however, that I find it difficult to watch for very long. Many programs seem angry -- Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews -- as do some of the programs on Fox -- Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck. I've come to avoid watching these kinds of shows, because they feed off of the widening chasm between liberals and conservatives. Nothing can be gained from that, particularly when even professionals can't discuss a subject without talking (yelling) over each other. It sets an example that this method of discussion is okay, however, I don't think it gets us anywhere.

Recently, I saw the movie, Fair Game, about the exposing of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. Though I question some of the facts, I was struck by the power of a scene with Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn, and Valerie Plame, played by Naomi Watts. In the scene, they are having a heated argument that escalates with each trying to out-yell the other. Finally, screaming at his wife with such anger his veins bulge, Wilson asks, (paraphrasing) "Does truth come from the one who yells the loudest?" The simplicity of the statement was profound.

I'll end this interview with a quote by Leonard Nimoy:

Those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.


NOTE:  Thoughts? Leave a comment by Monday, January 17 to be entered in a drawing for the following anthologies where Ned's stories appear. Winner will be announced on this blog and on Facebook.

Featuring "Divine Intervention" by Ned Downie
and "Captain Josie and the Whale" by Jan Morrill

Featuring "Bobbing for Death" by Edward Downie


  1. I commend you for boldly tackling this subject in an open forum. Both politics and religion have one thing in common - emotional issues. When people start hammering each other's core beliefs the feathers stand up on the back of their necks like two roosters at a cockfight. Any opportunity for a rational, open-minded discussion flies out the window. I find today's political talk shows terribly disturbing. They promote one-sided views and anyone that disagrees with them is misguided, uninformed, or a complete moron. People like me are even worse. We claim to be INDEPENDENTS. How vile is that? For some stupid reason we think people should check out both schools of thought, investigate the issue in question, and make up their own minds. Isn't that archaic? Please pray for us. We don't know any better.

  2. I've been mildly chided for not defending with sufficient vigor my title as the writing group resident cynic, satirist, and firebrand in Jan's interview. So I asked my friend and critic, Bernard, if the characterization was accurate.
    "Yeah," he said, "your performance, bro, was lackluster. As lacking in luster as the back window on a pickup driven fifty miles over dirt roads--in August."
    "Wow, that bad," I allowed, apologetically. "What might I have said, but didn't, keeping in mind that I don't want to offend anyone?"
    "The first thing--ignoring your hopeless quest to make omelets without breaking eggs--the thing that always sticks in my craw--you should have taken on the massive hypocrisy of the conservatives, who cloak themselves in the veneer of Christianity without practicing any of its precepts, like taking care of the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly trying to survive on Social Security, the sick, all the hard-pressed, of whom there are a great many."
    "But what about personal responsibility? Doesn't offering people a helping hand just teach them dependency?"
    A sneer curled Bernard's lip. "So dismantling the safety net, lowering taxes on the rich, is done selflessly--an example of tough love--to keep the destitute from becoming dependent?"
    "Er . . . " I said.
    "Not," he continued, "so that the rich can buy another vacation home? A third SUV? A 42-inch television for the guest room? A mutual fund investing in jobs in China?"
    "But competition is the basis of our civilization," I explained. "If people ceased to strive to outproduce their neighbor, progress would grind to a halt. Like Adam Smith said, the invisible hand guides those seeking to maximize their own interest to make their greatest contribution to society. Everyone benefits."
    "I see," said Bernard. "Are you entirely comfortable with this noxious bloviation? Can you see no problems with such a philosophy? Is it, perchance, too easy? Almost like getting a free lunch: look out for yourself, and benefit needy others. That's the program the conservatives are selling."
    "Well, what's wrong with that," I asked.
    "Admonishing people to look out for number one is like teaching dogs to chase cars--it's easy; success is assured--but it's no impressive achievement."
    "I continue to be astonished," Bernard fulminated, "that Christians have allowed themselves to be manipulated by right-wing corporate oligarchs--via that vulpine network--into the position where a card-carrying atheist has to teach them about morality and their Christian duty."
    "You, Bernard?"
    "I've looked through my Bible several times, and I can find no place where Jesus talks about capitalism, let alone extols the virtue of free-market competition. I can't even find how much he was paid for the loaves and fishes he handed out. Or the water he turned into wine. Or for healing the sick. But he counseled frequently on the need to aid the poor. And who do you think threw the moneychangers--the bankers of the day--out of the temple?"
    "Bernard, I'm sure you're overlooking something. Conservatives just can't be as bad as you make them out to be."

  3. Ed_Quixote, for someone who doesn't want to offend anyone, I'd say you missed the mark--widely!

    Your friend, Bernard, offends by his castigation of those who hold free-market principles dear. You offend by your lack of a spirited response.

    As I see it, your only option is to be silent, completely silent . . . which would offend me! :-)

    To mis-apply Dylan Thomas's words:

    "Do not go gentle
    into that good night.

    Rage! Rage against
    the dying of the light!"

    Keep raging, Ed_Quixote!

  4. @Russell - you're right, it took some nerve for me to blog on politics. My hope was to open some dialogue so that we all might learn something. As you can see, we have some challenges ahead. :-)

    ed_quixote - thank you for sharing a sampling of your satire. I think, however, Bernard is a bit harsh and misunderstands conservatives, who want the size of their goodness and hearts to be personal responsibility and not directed by anything or anyone. I'm glad you, however, have been softened some. :-)

    @Duke - thank you for your comments and for the very appropriate Dylan Thomas quote.

    Thanks for being the first to test the waters!

  5. Duke--You're a little behind the times, my son. The paradigm has shifted. Milton Friedman is dead. Conservative federal judge Richard A. Posner had a book out in 2009 A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression, ISBN 978-0-674-03514-0. Yves Smith has a RealNewsNetwork interview worth watching: December 26, 2010. Stimulus And Tax Cuts Not a Long-Term Solution: Long live Yves Smith!

  6. Have no fears about writing political articles. I know that politics on a blog is a rara avis, but what's wrong with that?

    Here's my go at the questions:

    5. NPR. Yup, its bias is toward college professors. That is seen as liberal by many Republicans, but that's because they were our students. What they don't realize is that we are forced to be tolerant by our deans. Our collective attitude is that so long as we can read our books without being disturbed, you may do as you wish.

    2. I've always been an individualist and hated being told what to do. I suppose that makes me a lifelong Contrarian.

    3. Here in the South, we refrain from talking about anything controversial because Mamma is in charge of the dinnertable. What we need to realize is that she ain't in charge of the Agora.

    I have no sympathy for those who aren't willing to express themselves loudly. (I do feel sorry for such poor folk.) If you don't understand what I'm saying, stop disagreeing with me, and listen.

    1. Here's the biggie. Let's define the terms according to what they really mean, then see about modern politics. A Conservative believes in conserving the gains of the past, while a Liberal asserts the inherent rights and liberties of the individual. Progressives want to secure gains for the masses.

    If I may paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, though, today, Republicans are enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from Democrats, who wish to replace them with others.

    My party believes that we must restrain the power of anything large and promote the power of individuals.

    4. The world would be much better off if all of you would find it within yourselves to agree with me.

    Isn't that really what everyone thinks? Let's just be honest about that, and debate matters from there. So long as we are willing to change our positions when needed, there's no problem.

  7. Bravo, Greg. Though I don't agree with everything you said, I certainly agree that many of us think "the world would be a better place if all agree with me," in political, as well as other matters. Understanding that, we shouldn't let it stop us from discussion.

  8. @Duke - You are the winner of autographed copies of Voices and Mysteries of the Ozarks! Thanks to the brave souls who commented! :-)