Monday, December 1, 2014


My UC Berkeley enrolled niece did a little research on the issue of tuition increases juxtaposed to the text of 2012’s Proposition 30.  She correctly found that Prop 30 made no specific promises protecting tuition levels for the UC system.  In a query to the Church of the Open Road, she laments that while she doesn’t like the proposed increases, she is appalled that those protesting are trotting out Proposition 30 as a promise unkept.  And what did I think?

Is the tuition increase a bad idea?  Sure it is.  The State of California can and should invest more in higher education – back at the institution’s inception, tuition used to be free for California residents – because, the thinking was, the more well educated a person is, the more productive that person will be within the state’s economy.  But is the tuition increase a back-step from a promise made when proposition 30 was passed?  Of course not.  It was never part of Prop 30.  And that’s the detail that is conveniently omitted when rallying the troops.  The protesters appear foolish trying to employ an arrow that’s not actually found in their quiver.  Perhaps they’re way too wrapped up in how the increase affects “me.”

As far back as I can remember (let me suggest that that goes back to my college days, although I must admit I may not be able to recall what I had for dinner last night) folks have been mobilized either for or against some cause.  In the 70s, it was opposition to the war in Vietnam, something that, if I’d been paying attention at the time, I probably would have opposed.  But when demonstrators closed the college for two days in protest, it prompted me to think less about our involvement in Southeast Asia and more about me getting cheated out of a couple of days worth of instruction that I’d paid for.  I was a kid who’d never left town.  What did I know of the world?  It was pretty easy to only think about myself in this instance.

Fast forward to now and we have incident after incident of protests and disruptions promulgated by organizations promoting a what’s-in-it-for-me binary view of an issue in order to whip up a rent-a-mob mentality among those who’re not acclimated to looking deeply at an issue (or who have little to do with their time that is actually constructive.)  The framing of the tuition increase as a we’ve-been-cheated protest is but one example. 

Binary thinking is a scourge on America.  Binary thinking thrives in an environment where and participants wallow in an easy and comfortable form of intellectual laziness.  It blooms when acceptance allows pesky details and truths to be left out if those ideas run counter to the desired narrative.  Binary thinking causes people to talk over or past one another rather than with each other.  Binary thinking says that something is either right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, moral or immoral.  In binary thinking there is no room for discussion or compromise.  Witness Ferguson.  Witness immigration.  Witness healthcare.  Witness firearm regulation.  Heck! Witness holiday gatherings for some families.  No discussion.  The one who yells loudest, wins.

No-middle-ground binary thinking is what we see going on in our public discourse, whether it is on AM talk radio, in the Twittersphere, on Facebook.  Sad circumstance.  The result is anger, distrust and even violence.  Rarely, if ever, solution.  Rarely, if ever, progress.

The thing is, somebody profits by all of this.  It’s like the kid on the playground who walks up to a another and says, “So and So thinks you’re a (fill in the blank).  Whereby “Another” gets fired up at So and So, and if the dispute ends up in an argument or fisticuffs, the kid who started it just sits back and enjoys the fracas. 

In big-people America, the sound machine has tapped into that path-of-least-resistance intellectual laziness to which too many of us now succumb.  The “machine” has figured out how to use (or misuse) flashpoint words like freedom, socialism, liberty, Nazism, liberal, “Democrat Party” – the list goes on and on – like prods.  One of those words attached to an issue an individual is concerned about can fire the person up to the point that they don’t want to or need to see the shades of gray that really define what should or could happen to resolve things.  Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are great at this.  I’m sure there are folks on the left as well.  Each side only says enough to ignite the base, then they sit back and profit.

Back when I was a kid in my teens and early 20s, in spite of the war and the protests, we felt our generation would be the one that could turn things around and set America – and then, of course, the world – on the right track.  (Cue John Lennon’s “Imagine.”)  But somehow, we lost our way and didn’t accomplish that.  About ten years ago, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee put forth the question “When did the idealism of the Baby Boom generation change?”  I responded (asking that it not be published) that I wasn’t sure exactly when, but it occurred sometime between when in a president’s inaugural address we were admonished to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” and when, twenty years later, a successful presidential candidate rode into office asking the electorate: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Somewhere in that timeframe we became binary in our thinking.  And the question was a simple one:  “Is it good for me or is it not good for me?”  The greater good was lost somewhere.  That greater good will remain lost until we return to an embrace a larger perspective and throw off the shackles of binary thought.  Once we’ve done that, we can constructively address racial divides, immigration, healthcare, firearm regulation and, yes, UC tuition. 

Heck!  Even Thanksgiving dinner might, one day, be pleasant!  Wouldn’t that be cool?

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

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