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Still Crazy

October 20, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, in a comment prompted by Arnold Bogis’ inaugural weekly post to the HLSwatch website, Phil Palin recounted a conversation with an unnamed colleague whom he quoted as having said, “With the best of intentions — but worst of results — our current emergency management mentality systematically breeds dependence. We are our own worst enemy.” All I can say is Pogo would be proud.

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow probably would be as well. In his recent book, Be Very Afraid,Wuthnow critically examines the cultural roots of the American obsession with Armageddon and the always just impending threat of self-annihilation. It does not diminish his argument or its thoroughly scholarly presentation to say his summation is not so far from that of Phil’s friend. In short, Wuthnow concludes that our efforts to put people at ease are largely responsible for their inexorable anxiety about the future.

The threats we face are real enough. But the ways we try to reassure people, Wuthnow tells us, leave them wondering whether we really have matters in hand. After all, many of the threats we warn them about are of our own making.

It is fair enough to say that we are not personally responsible for creating the threats, but the governmental, technocratic tribe to which we belong does bear responsibility both for the decisions and actions that render us vulnerable while simultaneously directing other members to find remedies for these unsavory yet entirely foreseeable situations. Schizophrenic does not even begin to describe the situation.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald so aptly noted, intelligent people may be able to hold two contradictory notions in mind at once, but surely both arguments must have some particular appeal to them for this to be the case without the anxiety becoming apparent to them if not downright unbearable. When we confront people with evidence of their mortality, make it clear that they cannot depend upon government alone to rescue them and then implore them to trust that we know what we are doing when it comes to managing the threats we face they rightly wonder whether we are the crazy ones.

Maybe we are. Focusing on pathological thinking leaves unanswered an important question: “What would it look like if we we were healthy, happy and safe? How would we know if we were in such a state?”

Phil’s post over the weekend cites a Wall Street Journal essay by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt. His research focuses on the nexus between moral beliefs and political behavior. In Haidt’s most recent published book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he suggests that the virtues we practice not only reveal the values we hold but inform them as well. In other words, we are — at least in part — what we do, and these actions are usually motivated by our comfort if not our interests.

To the extent the things we are doing strike many citizens as inconsistent if not necessarily insane should come as no big surprise. The public’s behavior may be little more than an outward sign of the internal anxiety caused by watching what we are doing. If either their behavior or our reaction to them makes us uneasy too, then perhaps we should take Haidt’s WSJ diagnosis as a challenge. Are we willing to something about it?

I’ve watched for years as local public safety executives and unions have expressed their anger and frustration with the level of support they get locally (which is formidable by anyone else’s reckoning, dwarfing all but education, health and welfare spending it its magnitude) to demand federal interventions and funding support. The chiefs’ and unions’ obsessions with what they are not getting has all but overwhelmed their ability to appreciate what can be done with what they already have. As such, I wonder whether their apparent anger masks something deeper and darker: An insidious fear that people might not notice if the money was spent elsewhere or not at all.

Police chiefs, fire chiefs and other public safety executives wield considerable influence over their organizations and in the community at-large. They occupy positions typically associated with power. Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer reminds us that those who hold positions of power are not always the most able, best loved or for that matter all that empathetic. Rather they are the ones most adept at playing the game. In his book, Power, Pfeffer notes without the least hint of cynicism that those in power accept three things others find it hard to swallow: 1) they accept that life is not just, 2) they relate to the world as it is (or as they perceive it to be) rather than as others wish it to be, and 3)  they don’t base their definition of themselves or the best course of action in a given situation on how others see them.

We like to believe that others think the way we do. We want to believe that they want the same things we want. But that’s clearly not the case most if not all of the time. If it were, we would not find ourselves faced with the soaring levels of distrust in government and disagreement about priorities so obviously evident across our society.

If insanity can be defined as doing the same things over and over and expecting different results, what should we be doing differently? If local public safety officials are really committed to building stronger, safer communities what actions should they be taking instead of the ones we are seeing? What role, if any, should federal officials play in promoting ideals consistent with these actions? Do standards or mandates have a place in bringing this about?

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