Chapter 1: Mindset: Meaning and Implications
We put terrible pressure on our minds when we tighten them or when we harden our views or beliefs; we lose all the softness and flexibility which makes for real shelter, belonging and protection. Sometimes the best way of caring for your soul is to make flexible again some of the views that harden and crystallize in your mind; for these alienate you from your own depth and beauty.
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World
In my first semester of college so long ago I encountered a required course called “sociology.” I recall entering its first day in full ignorance of the subject matter – must be something about being “social.” I quickly discovered that sociology was about nothing in particular and, simultaneously, everything in general. Its teachings seemed intuitively obvious, self evident. Boring. Why must we waste time studying common things everyone learns by simply living? I wished we could speed up this trivia and get on to the good stuff. I was, recall, just a freshman.
Of course that unappreciated sociology course left its mark and today, nearer the other end of my life, many of those seemingly trivial, self evident topics remain poignantly with me. One in particular has claimed my attention increasingly over two decades, and ironically, because I think it so important, here I am writing a book about it.
I recall that one day in that ancient class we spent a while discussing how people form opinions. In the standard “rational” version, one learns some facts, ponders them, and – based on those facts – progresses to an informed opinion. Alternatively, in what I’ll call the “classic” version, one skips over all those bothersome facts and goes straight to the form-an-opinion stage. It’s so much easier than the rational version, which requires mental effort, and so it’s considerably more common.
A lifetime of observation has taught me that this mundane, obvious and self evident sociological trivia about how people form opinions is important. I know this is so, because each day’s news confronts us with words spouted and actions taken based on opinions that clearly were not well informed at all, that obviously did not take into account even a smattering of the known and relevant facts. Informed or not, quite often these opinion-based words and actions, both public and private, are quite important indeed – especially those that can affect all of us.
For example, the United States preemptively invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq based on the highest levels of erroneous opinion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and – it was further opined – there was high risk that he might well unleash them on nearby Israel or, quite more distantly, us. Having worked in military intelligence during the Vietnam years, I knew first hand the pressure those intelligence analysts were under to find some shred of evidence – regardless how ambiguous – to provide believable rationale for aggressive action already decided upon at the very top.
That consequential historical drama over Iraq is but one small example; others abound everywhere and every day. People form opinions, often with little or no factual basis for doing so. Like the primal intention to take out the late Hussein, rationalized by the alleged threat of his hypothetically awful weapons, the real basis for opinions often is a built-in bias, a preexisting proclivity to want to believe a certain thing, factual or not.
This preexisting bias is called a mindset.
There’s no law against it, you cannot deny anyone the right to hold a really stupid, uninformed opinion. While this may seem especially true of younger, less experienced minds, it clearly has no age limit. In the best of cases – well informed of all relevant facts – opinions still have a way of hanging around beyond their useful time. An opinion that was appropriate in 1980 may well have little relevance to situations arising in 2015, but there it still is. Un-reexamined, opinions harden. Atrophied, they become mindsets.
But that’s just the negative side. Mindsets can also be quite positive. The mere fact of having one is intrinsically neither good nor bad. What matters is the quality of the mindset, which can be said to range from fully open to fully closed. Whether a person’s mental habits are open, closed or somewhere in between directly influences the quality of that person’s thinking, which in turn influences the quality of decisions which translate into actions. And actions often do have a way of being good or bad, intrinsically.
For instance, an open mindset – open to all pertinent facts in a given situation – may produce action decision A. The very same facts about the very same situation, when filtered through a biased or closed mindset, may produce action decision B. The difference between A and B can be horrific.
There is surprisingly little argument, even among an American public with deep political divisions, that politically biased mindsets drove the decision to invade Iraq, the unlikably irascible Saddam notwithstanding. Comparably, it was deeply biased mindsets, reflecting extreme religious-political misperceptions of reality, that drove a decision to fly suicide bombers into the World Trade Center towers. The two events have in common that both directly resulted from opinions reflecting deeply biased if not wholly closed mindsets. Had those mindsets been more open, more fully considerate of other relevant facts in a broader, more accurate understanding of reality, there might well have been no invasion and the twin towers might yet stand.
On such reasoning we may assign value to mindsets: “open” is good, “closed” is bad.
Thus is revealed my own mindset about mindsets. I have reasoned, and become firmly convinced, that it is good to have an open mind about everything. I am equally convinced that it is bad, an inherent wrongness, to harbor a mindset that is totally closed about anything. Anything at all. Wishing to be consistent with myself, I try to remain open minded to the possibility that I might be wrong about all this, and am willing to listen to anyone who might wish to persuade me otherwise. But unless and until contrary evidence may overturn this mindset, arrived at the open-minded way over a long lifetime, I remain pretty firmly convinced that about any topic in this world, any topic whatsoever…
…it is good and desirable to maintain an open mindset; and
…it is bad and undesirable to harbor a closed mindset.
Now this may all seem rather general – simplistic, self evident – the way I misperceived freshman sociology way back before life had seasoned me. However, if you are willing to join me for a while here, and assume these simple maxims might actually be true, that assumption can lead us into some very interesting regions.
Mindsets do directly affect human affairs at every level and stage of life. Though we may lightly brush them as mere “inclinations” or “tendencies” to think about certain things in certain ways, it is a fact that every human action begins in the mind of the person who initiates that action. This understanding is not unimportant, because the mindset behind any given action will greatly influence 1) whether the action is taken at all, and, 2) if it is taken, whether it will be consequently helpful or harmful for the people affected by it. Large and small examples abound. This discussion will focus on a few arenas of human interest that I think are the more important here in the early twenty-first century.
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Mindset: an example
While this book addresses politics and economics only coincidentally, I wish to present here at the outset a classic case drawn from those two fields because it so starkly illustrates our central topic: Mindset. This example is particularly useful because every possible reader of this book has already been personally affected by it, and thus will already have at least some personal understanding of its significance based on personal experience. It shows poignantly why mindsets matter.
As a bright youth, Alan Greenspan became a devotee of the Russian expatriate writer Ayn Rand. The young Greenspan was greatly influenced by Rand’s offbeat beliefs and teachings. Many years later, his hardened mindset would negatively affect all of us.
Rand became famous – some call it notorious – for espousing an extreme ideology of free-market capitalism, arguing that all commerce should be utterly free of any regulation whatsoever by government – federal, state or local. In 1959 she told newsman Mike Wallace “I am opposed to all forms of control. I am for an absolute laissez faire free unregulated economy. I am for the separation of state and economics.”
Rand’s anarchic, quasi-evangelical mindset on economics was accompanied by an oddly radical philosophy of personal independence, aloof and devoid of empathy or social caring for others. She authored several books consistently eschewing any trace of social contract or political commons. Her narrow plots rejected the common American civic arrangement wherein elective governing bodies assume some measure of responsibility for an economic safety net and the basic wellbeing of all citizens, as long established in all Western democracies. One of her books (co-authored with Nathaniel Branden) was actually titled The Virtue of Selfishness.
Rand acquired a coterie of youthful disciples, including Greenspan, who bought into her ideological mindset that citizens who favor any form of governmental assistance, regulation, or interference in free-for-all private enterprise are inferior “parasites” who deserve to be trounced without remorse by their naturally superior free-market betters.
Thus when the mature Greenspan was appointed Federal Reserve chairman in August 1987, control over the nation’s money supply was handed to a man possessed of a true believer’s doctrinaire mindset that governmental regulation is inherently evil and a detriment to “free” enterprise. Predictably, during more than two decades as a powerful top-ranking government official, Greenspan implemented his anti-government beliefs as a long series of small changes, one at a time, little noticed by most people.
After two decades under his influence, abetted by a Congress incessantly pressured by the immense banking and financial lobbies, many key regulatory strictures that Congress had put in place decades earlier were dismantled. Eliminated were key safeguards expressly originated to prevent recurrence of the insane financial excesses which caused the 1929 stock market crash and resultant Great Depression. As regulations fell one by one and key regulatory statutes such as the Glass-Steagal Act were repealed, excesses in banking and speculative financial practices grew apace, just like in the 1920s.
People who would have been called robber barons in the 1890s reappeared as super-paid CEOs of giant corporations, attended by busy manipulative lieutenants, all driven solely for wealth attained by any artifice. Systematically acquiring and cannibalizing the productive capacity of lesser corporations, corporate behemoths came to control assets larger than many countries’ national budgets. Moving whole factories and all their jobs to any country, anywhere, that offered cheaper labor force costs became so commonplace that such moves became taken for granted, their social wrongness accepted as if normal.
Wielding unprecedented power and influence, multinational corporations grew so international in their operations that allegiance to any one nation became illogical – and so they remain today. To these globalized “corporate nations,” the national interests of the United States, and of its people, are no longer relevant – they serve a bigger goal, an end which subordinates all means. These developments were directly encouraged and supported by the policies and actions of Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve Board.
“Derivatives” and similar financial instruments, so complex they were little understood even by the companies that sold them, were invented and permitted to control ever-larger fractions of the U.S. economy. When the relatively new but massive U.S. subprime mortgage market became integrally incorporated into these arcane instruments and machinations, the stage was set for the Wall Street meltdown of 2007-2008.
When it happened many financial participants acted as if they were surprised. While foreclosures and dispossessed former homeowners came to number in the millions, millions more managed to retain homes with assessed value fallen below the mortgage they still owed. Among the market manipulators who got filthy rich bilking the system while producing nothing of tangible value, almost no one went to jail. They still argue over who to blame, while time and business as usual marches on. For details on these matters, including the buildup years preceding 2007 and the global recession following 2008, the following website (among many informative books and online sources on the subject) is instructive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subprime_crisis_impact_timeline
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…to be continued in one week…
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