Sunday, Understanding Debt Ceiling Politicians Through "12 Angry Men" - 7/17/2011

First published in Huffington Post

Director Sidney Lumet's 1957 classic, 12 Angry Men, a mainstay in law and business school curriculum, that shows the influence of preconceived notions, assumptions and prejudice, and deconstructs coalition building, the art of persuasion, reciprocity, and dealmaking, is a useful film for understanding politicians involved in the debt ceiling talks.

Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and a host of familiar faces from grainy black and white television shows, the film is both an examination of the American judicial system (the 12 angry men are jurors who must weigh in on a murder case) and touches on some of the issues and "isms" that America was grappling with in the late 50s -- communism, fascism, racism, McCarthyism.

In the current talks, politicians on both sides of the aisle hold on to their positions with white-knuckled ferocity and refuse to deal with the hot mess that is the debt ceiling, while the rest of us have been rendered mute by the complexity of it all, or struck a Gandhian pose of civil disobedience by posting snark about politicians on this and other sites, or have given up and curled into a psychological fetal position.

The consequences to micro-economics (our ability to sustain ourselves financially without sinking into a deep debt hole or relying on the kindness of those who love or tolerate us) and macro-economics (China's ability to claim us as household pets [Stephen Colbert, 2010]) are as dire as the taglines in the film advertising for 12 Angry Men: "LIFE IS IN THEIR HANDS -- DEATH IS ON THEIR MINDS! It EXPLODES Like 12 Sticks of Dynamite."

"We cannot default but we cannot afford to retreat right now either. Now is not the time to retreat, it's the time to reload. And we reload with reality..." Sarah Palin weighed in on the debt ceiling recently. When horse manure like this flies in your direction faster than you can dodge it, there's nothing left to do but watch Jon Stewart to render American life as we live it now into comedy, or play a new parlor game -- match the juror from 12 Angry Men to a politician opining on the debt talks.

FOREMAN: A small, petty man who is impressed with the authority he has and handles himself quite formally. Not overly bright, but dogged.
JUROR NO. 3: A very strong, very forceful, extremely opinionated man within whom can be detected a streak of sadism. He is a humorless man who is intolerant of opinions other than his own and accustomed to forcing his wishes and views upon others.
JUROR NO. 4: Seems to be a man of wealth and position. He is a practiced speaker who presents himself well at all times. He seems to feel a little bit above the rest of the jurors. His only concern is with the facts in this case, and he is appalled at the behavior of the others.
JUROR NO. 6: An honest but dull-witted man who comes upon his decisions slowly and carefully. A man who finds it difficult to create positive opinions, but who must listen to and digest and accept those opinions offered by others which appeal to him most.
JUROR NO. 7: A loud, flashy-handed salesman type who has more important things to do than to sit on a jury. He is quick to show temper, quick to form opinions on things about which he knows nothing. Is a bully and, of course, a coward.
JUROR NO. 8: A quiet, thoughtful, gentle man. A man who sees all sides of every question and constantly seeks the truth. A man of strength tempered with compassion. Above all, he is a man who wants justice to be done and will fight to see that it is.
JUROR NO. 10 An angry, bitter man. He is a man who antagonizes almost at sight. A bigot who places no values on any human life save his own, a man who has been nowhere and is going nowhere and knows it deep within him.
Juror NO. 12: A slick, bright advertising man who thinks of human beings in terms of percentages graphs, and polls and has no real understanding of people. He is a superficial snob, but trying to be a good fellow.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 08:11
Sunday, March 6. 2011
The death of literacy and the victory of spectacle occurred a few feet from my house, last week, while I was still reeling from Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion - The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. It happened at Northwestern University -- a not for profit, privately held institution that occupies the most valuable lakefront and prime real estate in the City of Evanston, IL, charges more than $40,000 a year in tuition, has a $5.9 billion endowment, and pays no property taxes.

The spectacle in question was a live sex demonstration by two exhibitionists who, "disappointed" by a video presentation of female orgasm which they deemed "unrealistic," decided to show the room of a hundred SAT and ACT score-busting collegians what female orgasm is really like. Enter a willing female, a male partner with a Home Depot fetish, and a "reciprocating" saw attached to a sex toy. Also in the room was a popular professor of human sexuality, so witless it seems, he'd sign his own death certificate if you put it in front of him. "My decision to say 'yes' reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration," said the professor.

If we set a really low bar for ourselves, say 2 inches from the ground, I suppose we would be able to see in this educational exercise, American ingenuity at its finest, brought to bear on a grave problem--the lack of realism in a video about female orgasm. But if we have greater expectations, we can see in it the infantilizing of higher education--the rejection of the development of abstract and critical thinking skills, higher order thinking skills, the most complex cognitive thinking skills, in favor of grade school level "show and tell."

The 18 and 19 year-olds I know are full of curiosity and energy, and are well prepared to take advantage of academic rigor. They don't know what their future holds, but they feel brave because they have put their faith in higher education. Yet, if you ask them what they think of college, many will tell you it's a racket--a system designed to teach them close to nothing about what they need to make their way in the world, and to keep them as indentured laborers through student loans.

In Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, suggests that the new era of hyper globalization, massive information, dominance of science and technology, and the clash of civilizations will demand cognitive abilities and capacities that up to now have been mere options. Gardner says that without these "minds," individuals will be at the mercy of forces they can't understand. He cites the disciplinary mind which masters major thought including science, mathematics and history; the synthesizing mind which integrates ideas from various discrete disciplines and spheres to create a coherent new whole that can be communicated to others; the respectful mind which is aware of and appreciates the differences among human beings; and the ethical and creating minds.

Educating our young people well, so that they have the potential to become virtuosos in the cognitive orchestration of knowledge, serves all our interests. Valorizing cheap thinking, spectacle, and moral nihilism may be oh so hip and cool, but it creates cheap-thinking, morally nihilistic, literal minded Americans.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 11:14


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