Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Bird Brains

Just when you thought that you might be starting to understand Americans, along comes the Guardian with the story of Lee Sherman. Sherman worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass, a company with a somewhat dodgy health and safety reputation, even by US standards. During his time there he was gassed and blown up, exposed to dangerous chemicals and nearly dissolved in acid. The company had him dump toxic chemical in the local river at night, which eventually wiped out the local fishing industry. When Sherman started to go off sick he was sacked for absenteeism. Even his time off to serve in the Army reserve was counted against him.

The rub is that Sherman supports the Tea Party. Never mind that weak regulation failed to save either his health or his job, he wants less of it.

Support for the delusional far right like the Tea Party always seemed pretty stupid unless you actually were a billionaire, but in the post-Credit Crunch world of perpetual austerity it seems pathologically stupid. But support there certainly is. Opinion polls regularly showed that the number of people who supported Obama's very modest health care reforms in Texas was actually less than the number of people who didn't have health insurance. In other words there were Texans willing to risk an unnecessary demise from a curable disease rather than support something they saw as 'communist'. An extreme case of Better Dead Than Red.

Indeed, it sometimes seems there is actually more support for the policies of tax cuts for the fat cats
and free reign for the big corporations at the bottom of the social strata than at the top. Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins once told me that at a 'Chatham House rules' junket he attended he asked a Captain of Industry what he thought the Credit Crunch meant and he replied "this is what the end of Western Civilisation looks like".

But if those at the top know the wheels have come off the waggon it is clearly not in their interest to let on. Not so the middle class. Most Corbynistas are middle class apparently, and the Green Party, 'as everyone knows', is both bourgeois and female, leading the Telegraph to declare their manifesto was "communism designed by a middle class woman", which is a line so good they should have used it as a campaign slogan.

But what about those on the lower rungs of society. The working class who may still work, but for whom prosperity never came? Our own rather tragic version of the Tea Party is UKIP. Across huge chunks of formerly Labour voting England, in the post-industrial north and the down-at-heel seaside towns of the east, in places that failed to boom under Thatcher or bounce back under Blair, UKIP has its supporters. If only we can evict the foreigners and get the EU bureaucrats of our back, they say, then industry would flourish, Britannia would rule the waves again. Capitalism may have failed to bring prosperity to all in two hundred years of trying, but if only the red tape was ripped up, the trade unions beaten down and health and safety brigade told off, then this time it would work.

It's bonkers, but people believe it. Why?

B F Skinner
Seventy odd years ago the American psychologist B F Skinner was doing some very strange things to animals. As well as teaching his cats to play the piano and his beagle to play hide-and-seek, he had an idea for the military to use pigeons as the guidance system for missiles.

Skinner was the father of the study of Behaviourism. Anyone today who talks about positive and negative reinforcement is using the language Skinner derived from his experiment on rats and more pigeons.Trapping the poor animals inside what was later called a Skinner Box, he had the tap levers in order to get rewards of food.

The clever bit, or the utterly evil bit, depending on your point of view, was that Skinner made sure they didn't always get their food. Some pigeons would get fed every time they pecked the lever, some every other time, and for some unfortunate birds it was completely random whether food appeared. Then Skinner would let the food run out.

The results were interesting. Group one would figure out pretty quickly what had happened and down beaks, so to speak. The second group would carry on a bit longer before working out that the free dinners were over. The third group though, the ones who received random rewards, would carry on pecking away for much longer. I've heard - and I can't prove this mind - that Skinner let some of them peck themselves to death still hoping that another pellet will come their way.

People aren't pigeons, but it's hard not to see an analogy here. For people like Lee Sherman life has always been a lottery. The industrial accidents that killed his co-workers could easily have taken his life. That he has survived to 82 despite a life in a toxic industry is surely just good fortune. That he was sacked for getting sick may not be a surprise to us, but he may well regard it as just bad luck.

To the Lee Shermans of the world, who see the fat cats walking away with riches they can only dream of, who get their world view from the Tea Party and their 'news' from Fox, it may seem that if only they wait a little longer their luck will change. If only the liberals don't steal their prize, if only they can stop the immigrants jumping the queue.

They believe that their turn will come if only they take the medicine at a higher and higher dose. Telling them that food tray ran out years ago or that they have only ever been pawns in some giant social experiment, which even its architects now regard as having failed, will not be welcome news.

So across the red states of the USA, and in UKIPland in the UK, the turkeys continue to vote for Christmas.

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