Let’s Ditch the Media and Establishment’s Cynicism and Go After What We Need and Want

We need to challenge our cynicism and draw millions more to believe in their deepest longings for a better society.

As a psychotherapist, I try to help people overcome the beliefs that cause them distress and inhibit them in life; beliefs about themselves and the world (usually acquired in childhood) that are unconscious but highly pathogenic. For example, some patients have the belief that they’re not supposed to have more of the good things in life than their parents had, or that they don’t deserve to be loved, or that they’re not supposed to be ambitious and successful. These beliefs are hard to change because they don’t feel like voluntary beliefs that are under the patient’s control. Instead, they feel like they are simply the way things are and the way they’re supposed to be. To believe otherwise is to risk the pain of rejection, shame or failure.

At the heart of such beliefs is what I would call a personal form of cynicism. The world seems to be wired in a certain way and is immune to change or choice. In this way, the cynicism I see in my office is similar to the cynicism seen in political life. The latter is everywhere. “Politicians always lie,” “the deck is stacked against us,” “voting is rigged and useless,” and “there’s nothing the average citizen can do about it.” The cynic in us takes the world as it is and assumes that is the way it has to be.

While ubiquitous in the Machiavellian world of politics, cynicism has reared its ugly head in a very particular way in the current spin around the Clinton-Sanders contest. Here’s the narrative that seems to be evolving: Clinton is the realist; Sanders the idealist. Clinton is practical; Sanders’ goals are high-minded but impractical. Clinton knows how to “get things done,” while Sanders is indulging in wishful thinking. Clinton knows how to pay for things; Sanders is grandiose and his programs will bankrupt the nation.

Such a frame may have elements of truth, but what’s clear is that it has become a popular storyline. The problem is that it’s also fundamentally cynical and exemplifies the worst sensibility in contemporary politics.

Our political system is shot through with cynicism. The media creates and then revels in it. It’s so pervasive that someone who is not cynical risks being discredited and dismissed as naive and unsophisticated. Politics is like a house of mirrors in which attempts to be authentic are filtered through the lens of cynicism and emerge on the other side as mere examples of posturing. I would argue that that is precisely what we are seeing in the spin around Sanders and his idealism.

Cynicism is the result and expression of frustrated needs for meaning and purpose. We all come by it honestly. Everyone has needs for meaning and purpose, but everyone also risks embarrassment if they express these needs too publicly. The cynical side of our nature helps mitigate this embarrassment by keeping a lid on our more idealistic ambitions.

The psychic need for a higher sense of meaning and purpose is manifested in many different ways. It’s a need for significance. It’s a longing to be part of something bigger and better than our lonely and isolated selves. Spiritual traditions and practices express it most directly in our culture. It’s also a wish to connect with and influence the future, to be part of the flow of history. Artists feel it; social activists trying to change the world feel it; parents who strive to provide their children with a better future tap into this need. People feel it in every walk of life. When communities turn out to help each other following a disaster, you can see it expressed. People get satisfaction from contributing to the whole, and from being part of a community of meaning seeking to influence history.

Conservative audiences have this need as well. Trump’s vow to make America great again speaks to it. Megachurches grow on the basis of gratifying this and other needs. Even ethnocentric calls for persecuting and expelling immigrants speak to the need for meaning and purpose in a perverse way; namely, that there is a “we” that is special but imperiled by a “them” and that if we get rid of them, we can realize the American Dream. It’s a dream that depends on a demonized other, but it’s a dream nonetheless.

We know what happens when other needs are frustrated. When someone’s need for food is frustrated, he or she feels hungry and suffers starvation. When someone’s need for connection and relationship is thwarted, the result is loneliness and isolation. When someone’s need for a sense of agency—the feeling that he or she can influence the important aspects of life—is taken away, the result is a painful feeling of helplessness and even depression.

When the need for meaning and purpose is suppressed or inhibited, we feel cynical. For the cynic, current reality comes to seem hard-wired into the fabric of the universe and of human nature. Rather than challenge the limits that reality is presumed to impose, the cynical solution lies in lowering expectations and finding a way to live with only small and incremental changes in the status quo.

But because of its negative connotations, cynics invariably deny that they have this affliction. Instead, they claim that they are simply being realistic. For example, the belief that everyone is out for himself is a cynical belief. So is the belief that the political and economic system is inevitably rigged to favor the rich and powerful. It’s not that these observations are inaccurate or that objective reality doesn’t routinely confirm them. It’s that they’re incomplete. Yes, people in our culture are selfish, and yes, the system is rigged against ordinary people. But these facts, while real, are not inevitable. They are subject to change. They were created and can therefore be modified by human intentions. Anyone who saw how New Yorkers helped each other after 9/11 and anyone involved in the great social movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights has to admit that selfishness and helplessness are not immutable facts of life.

Cynicism doesn’t just remind us that there are limitations in the real world; it fetishizes them, makes them into enduring things that stand apart from and opposed to us. Denying the reality that we can influence the way things are, cynicism constantly cautions us to play it safe and lower our expectations.

Cynicism has corroded our political system in devastating ways. One manifestation is the low rate of voter registration and turnout. The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among all the economically advanced democracies in Europe and Asia. Only 36% of eligible voters turned out to vote in the midterm elections here in 2014, the lowest percentage for a midterm turnout since 1942. During presidential election years, turnouts are higher (Obama in 2008 enjoyed a 57% turnout and, going back to presidential contests in the 1960s, participation rates were in the low 60% range), but still pathetically low.

Factoring in voter registration statistics, we have to face the startling fact that in 2012, a presidential election year with pretty good voter turnout, almost 73 million Americans who were eligible to vote did not do so. Only a little more than half of adult Americans voted. And finally, a recent study done by the California Voter Federation found that almost 70% of infrequent and non-voters in that state were under 30 years of age. While “convenience” was a top complaint, two-thirds of the survey’s respondents also shared the perception that politics are controlled by special interests. Under such conditions, it’s understandable that many people simply feel, why bother? What better expression of cynicism could there possibly be?

Progressive critics will immediately point out that we have been faced with so little choice in our electoral decisions, endured so many lesser-of-two-evils votes, that the cynicism of the non-voter is surely realism in its purest form. But even when we had Obama to vote for in 2008, almost half of eligible voters stayed home. The system most certainly is rigged but not completely, and when someone like Bernie Sanders comes along and talks about political revolution, political energies that are latent are awakened and “why bother” starts to “feel the Bern.”

Just because people’s need for meaning and purpose is thwarted, that need doesn’t go away. It lies there, waiting to be activated by the right kind of person and the right kind of appeal. It’s why many people turn to spirituality or political activism. It’s one reason so many people respond to passionate and visionary oratory. Our need for meaning and purpose, for a sense of significance, is expressed in our desire to be inspired, to transcend what is and believe in what could be. I think this explains some of the passion felt for Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016, just as in earlier times it explained some of the powerful popular response to Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. People are not responding to empty rhetoric. These speakers are awakening in them a longing to be inspired, to feel bigger and better than they feel in ordinary everyday life. When leaders succeed in this, listeners become engaged.

The fact that people want to escape or be elevated out of their ordinary lives is understandable given the ways we so often feel deadened by cynicism and by the belief that suffering, distress, disappointment, passivity, and helplessness are inevitable and natural. In other words, by describing the world in terms of possibility, rather than inevitability, these charismatic leaders are directly challenging a social and psychic malaise too often experienced in contemporary life.

But such an explanation is too simplistic. To really resonate with and engage people, a vision has to hit the right note. If it’s too mundane, our cynicism is confirmed, and while agreeing with it in principle, we don’t get engaged. If the vision is too grandiose as to be obviously impossible, we shrug it off as irrelevant to our experience. But if an inspiring vision is offered up that is neither too small or big, our longing to be part of something meaningful and grander than ourselves get stimulated and we want to be engaged with realizing that vision.

The problem is that when we do awaken this longing, we put ourselves out on a limb because we risk being disappointed. We become vulnerable to being told we’re naïve, that we’re being duped into shooting too high. Being called naïve is especially shaming. It’s like being called weak, innocent or vulnerable. The cynic is insulated from these accusations. While the need for meaning and purpose remains universal, cynicism is equally ubiquitous because it helps defend us against painful accusations of appearing impractical (and thus foolish) and idealistic (and thus easily disappointed).

This isn’t an irrational fear. Time and again, liberals have had their hopes for something politically transcendent raised and then dashed. It happened, for some of us, when a charismatic Bill Clinton won in 1992, but then invented “triangulation,” gutted welfare rolls and helped pass legislation deregulating banks. I think it happened with Barack Obama, who called us to our better and higher selves during his 2008 campaign (“Yes, we can!”) and then upon taking office retreated into pyrrhic compromises with Republicans and an approach to economic disaster that preserved the status quo even as it eked out a few real victories (the ACA, consumer protection, low-level financial regulation, etc.). Each one stimulated a thirst in many to be part of a movement. And each left many people at the altar, so to speak, disappointed that the movement they hoped for had succumbed to business as usual.

This is the psychological dynamic behind some of the current attacks on Bernie Sanders. Whatever you think of the political feasibility of his programs or his electability, Sanders’ plainspoken manner, enthusiasm and passion about economic inequality momentarily breaks through the drone of policy wonks and Washington insiders who react defensively by cautioning us to be realistic, and above all else, to be ready, at any moment, to vote for the lesser of two evils. Having momentarily awakened us from our political sleep, Sanders inevitably triggers our cynical defenses. He’s a naïve idealist, the cynic in all of us whispers. Play it safe and support someone who knows the rules of the game and how to win it.

In truth, Hillary Clinton’s goals and ideals may be as high as Sanders’. But she has chosen to present herself as the candidate practical people should vote for, the candidate for realists, pragmatists and down-to-earth rationalists. Clinton’s realism hides its underlying cynicism, one that mirrors the cynical political zeitgeist all of us assume is the natural state of affairs.

Sanders, for better or worse, challenges cynicism. True, many people who support Clinton do not fit into these caricatures and feel genuinely inspired by her story and her ideas. But Hillary’s campaign and the media in her camp are putting special emphasis on the distinction between her realism and Sanders’ impossible idealism. They are playing the cynicism card.

The media that is crucial in framing this contest is cynicism on steroids. The so-called mainstream commentariat weighs in on the horse race dimension of presidential politics as if the talking heads don’t have their own personal conflicts over feeling inspired and disappointed and haven’t settled for realistic change at the margins in the political arena.

Media personalities are supposed to be savvy judges of reality (at least savvier than the rest of us), and therefore, have a special aversion to and dread of sounding naïve. Thus, their cynicism is amplified. In their world, no one is ever what they seem, or ever authentic. Candidates pivot rather than change their minds. We learn that narratives are being constructed rather than points of view being expressed. Campaigns double down as opposed to emphasizing or reiterating something important. The talking heads are there to decode the game: Everything is a pose, a strategy, a spin, an attempt at manipulation. Even a politician’s tears can become a chess move in a game. The rest of us can only be passive observers.

Cynicism is a corrosive force in our politics and culture, but one that is invisible to us because it seems so normal. My patients feel the same way. They keep repeating patters that are familiar and experience deviations from these scripts as anxiety provoking. It’s my job to help them see, through education and by creating new corrective experiences in which they are encouraged to freely choose a healthier way to be, that their emotional reality and distress are not something hardwired and inevitable. My underlying message is that transformational change is possible.

Progressives need to convey this same message in the broader political arena. The problem we face is that political cynicism of the sort that suffocates us today masquerades as realism, a realism that warns us that transformational change is a pipe dream and that aspiring to what we really want is a recipe for disappointment. When a patient conveys this belief, I see it as a symptom of an emotional injury rather than objective reality and I seek to change it, not surrender to its inevitability.

That’s what a progressive movement should be doing on a social level; challenging cynicism and drawing people to our cause because our cause is big and grand and mirrors their own buried wish to be part of something that big and grand. We need leaders who can present such a vision and fight the realists who want us to be afraid of our own deepest longings.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of “More Than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World” (Blurb, 2015).

Have solar households really sold out on their environmental goals?

RenewEconomy’s Giles Parkinson discusses the claim by power networks that solar households have abandoned their environmental aspirations.

LAST WEEK, the head of the Queensland network operator Energex attracted some attention when he suggested that solar  households had lost sight of their environment agenda because they were using more power from the main grid than those without solar.

What’s the point of solar, CEO Terry Effeney wondered out loud at a Brisbane business luncheon, even on the future of electricity, if it wasn’t reducing demand and reducing the amount of coal-fired generation? And he used this graph (below) to illustrate his point.

According to comments reported by The Guardian (and said to be a fair summary by the folk at Energex), Effeney said solar-powered households, 

don’t worry so much about their bill now [and] are actually using more electricity off the network on average than people who haven’t got solar [who] are still worried about their electricity.

Could we have imagined that that would have occurred, when the whole point of putting solar in was more about a green outcome?

What you’ve got now is all about price … people who have solar are not worrying and are happy to leave their air-conditioning on and that’s really counter to what you were expecting to be a green agenda.

But is that really a fair portrayal of what is going on in the electricity market and in solar homes and others? Many are not so sure. The actual graph is not in dispute but the interpretation is.

One of the problems is that there are no direct comparisons … of, say, big families with a lot of energy use, using solar or not, and people who live in apartments, or pensioners, and using solar or not. And it doesn’t compare houses before they had solar and afterwards.

All these factors can influence what this data actually means but let’s look at what we know.

The yellowish/green line shows consumption from the grid by non-solar households. It indicates a big fall over a five year period before flattening out.

Five years ago, there was a big difference between non solar and solar households. Now there has been a cross-over. There could be several causes for this — the uptake of energy efficiency and “bill shock” in reaction to the soaring grid costs could have begun that fall.

It could also be that the biggest electricity users also took up solar. When you take out the biggest users, that reduces the average for the remainder. The fact that it is flattened now suggests that maybe the remaining households have run out of ways to cut demand.

The blue line (solar households) is effectively the energy required from the grid for a customer with solar PV, that the solar can’t supply.

It also showed a big fall in demand from the grid, which could mean that more energy efficiency measures were used, and also that the size of the systems increased, from an average of 1.5kW to 4kW.

That meant that most daytime demand (which is around 1,500kWh a year) is supplied by solar. The 6,000kWh roughly equates to evening, night and early morning demand.

There is a further complication. Even those houses with more solar than they need have no incentive to move demand (such as pool pumps, air conditioning and other appliances) to the daytime when it could be supplied by their rooftop solar, because of the structure of the tariffs — particularly the 300,000 on the premium feed in tariff.

They get 44c/kWh for solar exported to the grid, and a lot less for imports. It is totally different to whether the solar households are helping reduce coal consumption. On Energex own evidence, they do, because they now account for 7.4 per cent of total demand.

The premium feed in tariff is a perverse incentive and one that would require some clever thinking to get around. A recent suggestion by the Queensland Productivity Commission to simply end them was dismissed straight away.

But there may be alternatives. Ergon Energy suggested a “buy out” of feed in tariffs — trying to find a way that did not penalise the solar households but did align the tariffs and incentives that would provide benefits to all.

There are more questions. Why, for instance, do households now continue to put in larger solar systems than they need and beyond their ability to self-consume, particularly with the new low tariffs of less than 6c/kWh?

The answer may be that they are preparing for battery storage, or for electrification and the dumping of gas hot water, or a combination of both.

There is no doubt that Energex finds itself at the cutting edge of the uptake of rooftop solar. In some areas, 40 per cent of its customers have solar.

It has more than 1,000MW of rooftop capacity and at its peak, that could theoretically satisfy 20 per cent of demand at any one time (although South Australia and Western Australia are predicted to go to 100 per cent of demand at certain times within the next decade).

Over the year, it estimates that rooftop solar supplies 7.4 per cent of total demand in the network. That would be at the expense of gas and coal generation.

But solar is not going away. Neither is battery storage, despite Effeney’s attempts to talk that down and suggest that the uptake will be as slow as electric vehicles.

All the independent studies, and some internal ones, suggest that to survive into the future, network operators and other utilities, such as the retailers, need to engage with the consumer on the issue of solar and storage, not talk it down.

Battery storage is coming, whether Effeney likes it or not — and for the sake of his network and upgrade costs he really should be liking it. So he, like other heads of networks, should be seeing this as an opportunity rather than a threat.

And on that point, public messaging is critical. Most consumers are not going to fuss over a few percentage points on tariff this or that. They will just make a decision on whether they think that the energy utility is doing the right thing or not.

This story was originally published in RenewEconomy on 1 March 2016 and has been republished with permission. You can follow Giles on Twitter @GilesParkinson.


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Capilano and Comvita plan joint venture to boost trans-Taman manuka sales

A trans-Tasman partnership between Australian honey producer Capilano and New Zealand health-goods company Comvita aims to boost production of manuka honey.

The two companies have signed a memorandum of understanding to start an apiary business that will produce the popular honey, known for its unique taste and medicinal properties.

The two companies have worked together in the past researching the medical benefits of the honey.

New Zealand dominates the manuka market, producing the honey, which can sell for between to $40 and $100 a kilogram from two species of Leptospermum trees.

But Australia has 86 species of the tree, and local producer Capilano has been making in-roads to the market, with its August 2015 takeover of NSW producer KirksBees Honey.

This year, a Perth businessman announced a one million tree trial of Leptospermum species in WA’s south-west, in order to tap into the market.

Appeals court judge Kelly being vetted for Supreme Court spot: NYT

The White House is vetting federal appellate Judge Jane Kelly for a possible Supreme Court nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing a person with knowledge of the process.

The FBI has been conducting background interviews on Kelly, 51, the Times said, citing the unnamed source. The White House declined comment and Kelly’s assistant said she was not granting interviews on the matter, the newspaper said.

(Reporting by Megan Cassella; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

Hopoate and Pell: Victims of abuse of power

Jonathon Ireland compares the police handling and media reporting of John Hopoate with that of Cardinal Pell and considers the greater ramifications for abuse of power and our legal rights. 

POWERFUL FRIENDS make all the difference. John Hopoate and Cardinal Pell have both recently been victims of police abusing their power. Only one got ardent public defence.

Last week, it emerged that Detective Inspector Wayne Walpole of the Organised Crime Squad approached the Manly Sea Eagles and expressed concern over John Hopoate coaching its under 18s team. Inspector Walpole shared with the Sea Eagles management that the squad had significant concerns about Hopoate’s links to organised crime, evidenced by his “exclusion” from the Star Casino.

Of course, they couldn’t share the evidence they had used to secretly and non-judicially make the exclusion order but the police made representations to the effect that Hopoate was not a fit and proper person to be coaching young adults.

The silence was deafening

At the same time, reports emerged that Cardinal Pell has been under investigation for the past year over allegations of child sexual abuse stemming back a number of decades. Given it was the same week that he was to give evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse via video-link from Rome, questions were asked about the timing and the source of the information.

And didn’t the conservatives blow a gasket?

Andrew Bolt wrote,

‘Cardinal George Pell is the victim of one of the most vicious witch hunts to disgrace this country. It is shameful. Disgusting. Frightening.’

Bolt, of course, conveniently forgot that there are a lot of people in this country who are highly sceptical of Pell’s innocence in the Catholic Church’s manifest failure to deal with child sexual abuse amongst its clerics.

This is the same George Pell described by victims as having, 

“a sociopathic lack of empathy.”

He may not be a paedophile but there are a lot of people who despise Cardinal Pell.

Archbishop Dennis Hart jumped up to defend his friend, saying that the allegations did not reflect “the man I have known for 50 years”. Considering the scale of sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church, and how little their fellow clerics claim they knew about it, the statement would almost be comedic if the lack of introspection were not so deliberately tragic.

But they do have a point

We live in a country where we have a constitutionally protected separation of powers. The Legislature makes the Law, the Executive administers it and the Judiciary enforces it. What does this mean? It means that the people who make laws and administer them are not to decide whether they have been contravened. They can investigate and make their case to the Judiciary about whether or not a particular law has been broken but it is the Judiciary alone, which decides whether or not a contravention has occurred. The impetus for this is obvious — the branches of government are occupied by humans and humans are susceptible to prejudice.

A person should not be saddled with the burden of criminal sanction until they have had such accusations heard before a court, in a fair trial. A conviction carries with it substantial and burdensome penalties which affect every aspect of a person’s life. Only an impartial judge or jury should decide whether a person should have a criminal record.

Which brings us back to Pell

The criticisms of the article about the investigation into Pell’s alleged child sexual abuse are well founded, as much as I detest the man, personally. Regardless of how the information got out, I find it abhorrent that members of the police force found it acceptable to publicly release such information before even discussing the allegations with the Cardinal.

We can’t stand here and argue that every person has a right to a fair trial and then eviscerate Pell for child sex abuse based on allegations subject to an ongoing investigation. It was poor and irresponsible journalism, and an even worse mar on police integrity.

There is an argument to say the lines were a little more blurred in the Pell case — a journalist found out Pell was being investigated for child sex abuse. For all we know, the journalist may have already spoken to some of the complainants in the matter. The fact is that the journalist could have published the allegations without talking to the police but in all likelihood was making enquiries to ensure their story was accurate. If this was the case, then Victorian Police had their hands tied — to deny the investigation would amount to misleading the public.

If it wasn’t the case, it was appallingly irresponsible of the police to leak the information but at least the leak did not give Cardinal Pell a criminal “record”.

Hopoate: An entirely different matter

The NSW Police made the decision to make an unsolicited approach to Manly and the NRL concerning Hopoate’s alleged links to organised crime. He has no criminal convictions relating to organised crime and the decision to exclude a person from the Casino under Section 81 of the Casino Act is an administrative decision made in secret without all the usual requirements of evidence law. It is the sort of practice that makes the Star Chamber of 17th century Britain look like a bastion of justice. The Judiciary only tolerates these quasi-judicial forums because they are supposed to make decisions of limited impact without the sanction of criminal law.

What the police did, essentially, when they approached the Sea Eagles and the National Rugby League (NRL) was give John Hopoate a further criminal record without anything approaching a fair trial. We have never seen the evidence and they are claiming that it is confidential and won’t be released. Confidentiality and privacy are supposed to shield the rights of civilians, not the state-bodies bringing actions against them. In this age of metadata and warrantless searches, it is rather perverse that the police can claim that the evidence they use to give a person what is, in effect, a criminal record, should not be exposed to public scrutiny.

This is an enormous affront to our rights. What is a criminal record if not a barrier or social inconvenience acting as a warning about someone’s status as a fit and proper person? If the police want to make public accusations about Hopoate’s links to organised crime, then it should be put before a court. If not, they should sit back and shut up — it is not their role to decide whether or not someone is a fit and proper person and it certainly isn’t their role to approach private sector organisations about confidential investigative findings, which severely impact someone’s employment prospects.

But where is the voice of outrage from Bolt?

So quick to defend Pell, yet deafening silence when Hopoate’s rights are violated in a manner that has greater social implications. Our rights are under siege in this country — terrorism laws have eroded much of our rights to privacy, due process and transparent government. Yet the only time these dog-whistling alarmists get up on their high horses is when one of their own privileged and powerful come under attack.

Why not defend Hopoate, Bolt? Thomas Erskine risked his reputation in the defence of Thomas Paine when he was tried for seditious libel in 1792, after publishing the Rights of Man. You stand in the foreground of an inspiring history where people have defended unpopular causes, yet you chose the misjudged publishing of allegations against a high priest over the State’s abuse of power against a common man. What sort of person does that make you?

You can read more from Jonathon Ireland on his blog, The Young Contrarians, or follow him on twitter here. 

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