Friday, January 13, 2006

Political Resolve

Last week we discussed the problem of political courage. We showed how even retiring and bashful people could participate by making simple telephone calls to their elected Representatives. I am certain that no one (or very few) actually did call their Representative, but eventually some will, just to call my bluff, and there will be born at that moment a spark of hope for our form of government and the kind of society that supports it.

Since that essay hit the internet there have been calls for people to get into the streets wherever they are and protest the nomination of Sam Alito to the Supreme Court, and even more broadly to notice that the Bush Administration is ever bent on ignoring the Rule of Law and destroying the Constitution.

It must all seem like a blooming, buzzing confusion to people who find it difficult enough just to keep abreast of the news ... most of us, in other words. Normal life is tough these days and the incessant chatter of opinion begins to wear. After all, what politicians and pundits and essayists all do is try to convince you about a point of view to take. But, eventually we learn that all views are from some point, even mistaken and uncritical views, even highly developed views like you hear in college.

Remarkable scientific news on Tuesday appeared in my local paper about "mirror neurons" in the brains of every one of us, a subject that might be appropriate to mention here in this context. Followers of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, especially, will feel vindicated and will be talking about Categorical Imperatives loudly from now on.

See: PBS Nova and V.S.Ramachandran'sMirror Neurons.

You have to read into this subject because, as one of the authors says, this discovery will be as important to psychology as the discovery of DNA has been to biology. At last, in other words, there is a physical reason for behavior. The interesting thing is that we have known about it forever and called it "Monkey see, monkey do."

We learn by copying (aping) what we see happening around us. Interestingly though, our brains flash through the neural circuits kindled by experience whether we actually do what we see or not. So the expression should be "monkey see, monkey think of doing." So, for instance, a monkey seeing a laboratory technician coming back from lunch eating an ice cream cone experiences the same flash of neurons as when the monkey himself eats a banana.

The implications of there actually being neurons whose job it is to form mimicry circuits are huge. As I suggested above, the concept undergirding Kant's "Categorical Imperative"

Act as if what you do will serve as a model for the actions of others

is now vindicated, as is the Golden Rule. We should continue, and indeed accelerate our endless worries about children being raised in abusive homes and watching endless violence on television.

But, mirroring behavior is not a spell cast over us that we cannot control. We decide to practice our golf shots, go to the range, and hit a bucket of balls. We decide to practice our pilotes, put on the videotape, get on the floor and exercise our hearts and sinews. We decide to join a dance group so that we can practice our cha-cha or ballroom dancing. We join a political club to challenge our brains with the points of view of people who have an interest in the same kinds of outcomes.

We sit down and read blogs about Liberalism to keep in touch with ideas about the points of view of people who share that Liberal concern for social, economic, and political values. We take their advice about how to be Liberal and how to be in a world where everyone is not Liberal.

Then, along comes a threat—a guy named Bush—who, according to those who spend all or most of their time watching politicians and their agendas, is systemmatically acquiring powers in the Executive that are potentially and realistically destructive of our way of government and way of life. What do we do? What behaviors in situations like this do we automatically begin. What is our "monkey" response to someone eating OUR banana? (... or cheese?)

Our response typically is to cower behind our understandable ignorance of events and to be quiet, lest the ravenous intruder decides to eat us in addition to our banana and cheese. We learned all of this in elementary school and nursury school before that. By the time we were in fourth grade we knew how to stay out of fights, and our parents praised us for it. We were good kids when we came home for supper without black eyes, bruised cheeks, and bloody noses. We are, whether we know it or not, trouble avoiders. Even the kids who spend every waking moment playing violent computer games are avoiding confrontations with real life outside their homes.

But, there are bullies!

So, if you called your Representative last week and told him that you would call again to speak about impeachment, didn't you wonder what on earth you were going to say, if you every got up the courage to make the call? Weren't you a little nervous? You should have been nervous. In fact, you should understand the call you ARE going to make as not imposing your opinion on your Representative's political assistant, but instead as you modeling a behavior (it is: "calling your Representative") to the Representative. They are going to see you as one of many, because that is the way they think. If one calls, how many of a like mind have lost the courage to call? Answer: Many!

You have the phone number, you have a friend there who answers the phone, call.

"Hello, this is (yourname). I called last week about Representative 'Smith's' availability in the district. Hi! Good to talk to you, too! Today, I would like to talk with someone about ... (half-second pause) ... impeachment."

The person who answered the phone (perhaps your "friend") will maybe recognize you and in any case will forward your call to someone, or will say that no one is available at the moment because of committee meetings, and that someone will call you back.

In either case, when you finally do get to talk to one of your Representative's assistants, they will not be sure what you want to talk about, so you will say this:

"Yes, I called last week because I am very interested in the possibility of there being an impeachment of President Bush. I am worried that President Bush has gone way beyond his Constitutional authority. I think the matter is very serious and I want to know what Representative 'Smith' thinks."

There! You have mirrored exactly what the person hopes and expects, a worried constituent with a real and serious question. You have opened the question, not closed it. You have given the person and the Representative the respect you needed to, after all, they have opinions too and they are sitting right there in Washington.

Listen. Listen carefully to what the person has to say. Listen especially for anything that sounds like a question being asked of you. If you do not hear anything like a question, thank the person, and end the call as comfortably as you can. If you do hear a question aimed your way, say that you are not sure, but would like to think about it and call back. Or, if you are feeling your confidence (mirrored from successes you have had in team sports or social interactions in high school or at your job) tell them what YOU think. At this point it is important to not just agree with the person, but to stand on your own hind legs and say what you think, briefly, respectfully, and in your own words. And, you can always add, that you are going to think more about it and maybe call again.

There! It is done. You have opened a dialogue, a neural circuit between you in the district and your Representative in Washington. You have raised the bar; you have participated in public responsibility. You have done a political act, and you feel better about things than you did five minutes earlier.

Here are some things we did not ask you to say. They are nevertheless true and real. It is not up to individual Representatives in the House to make the decision whether Bush is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors or treason. It is the job of the whole House only to decide whether there is a prima facie case. To make this easy for you, consider whether you would send a child to the principal's office for pulling pigtails if (a) there were an explicit rule saying that pigtail pulling is illegal, and (b) the child stood there in front of you and admitted pulling pigtails.

The answer is clear; either you believe in upholding the law of the school or you do not. Since your Representative has taken an oath to defend the Constitution, he must believe in the rule of law. How then can he or she possibly NOT vote articles of impeachment and send the case over to the Senate for deliberation?! He has seen a crime and heard an admission of it!

If you got the impression that your Representative is thinking about whether there is any evidence of a high crime or misdemeanor, you will have to write him a letter explaining the mirror situation of the pigtail pulling bully. The evidence is in his lap, he needs only the courage to follow his convictions. But he must! He is officially sworn before his God and his sacred honor to do so!

James Richard Brett