Conversation Stoppers


The other day, in conversation with an acquaintance, he voiced his belief that “all politicians are crooks.”  When you hear an utterance so unequivocal it’s hard to know how to proceed.  Normally I let such pronouncements, and others like that, pass, recognizing that to take issue with these sorts of statements entails lengthy discussions with little prospect of making much headway.  That’s because many people over the course of their lifetimes, develop a cluster of pre-packaged, reflexive viewpoints regarding an array of subjects.  Convinced they’ve penetrated to the essence of the matter, inflexible enough to conclude no further discussion is required, they drop these verbal bombs and assume they’ve provided the last word on the subject.  Here is but a partial list of “conversation stoppers” I’ve encountered.

  • Professional sports are fixed.
  • Government can’t do anything right.
  • Men just have sex on their minds.
  • Prices always go up.
  • The French are very disagreeable.
  • Insurance companies will figure out why you’re not covered.
  • Doctors never listen to you.
  • Movies are mostly about sex and violence.
  • The Stock Market is rigged.
  • My grandchildren happen to be exceptional.
  • Road repair crews never seem to be working.
  • Something is always going wrong in a house.
  • Weathermen rarely get it right.
  • There’s nothing on TV.
  • Don’t talk to me about lawyers.
  • Drivers are crazy.
  • We spend a fortune on foreign aid.
  • Plumbers charge too much.
  • There’s no respect anymore.
  • Money goes to money.
  • It’s a free country.
  • It’s God’s Will.
  • It’s all in the genes.

Next time you hear any of these “certitudes” it will be up to you to decide whether to

let them pass or take them on.  Good luck.

What’s in a Name?


Europeans come to North America (at the outset, primarily from Western Europe) because either their living conditions had deteriorated, onerous laws had been imposed, or religious persecution had intensified.  They wished to escape the Old world and begin anew in America.  They sought and found a new identity, and the longer they remained here the more distant the memories of the lands they had left.  On the other hand the new territory was in many ways wild, alien and unpredictable, and so they often grew nostalgic, found comfort in recalling the places they had left.  Furthermore, the settlements they established were, for the most part, modest in size and population.  They needed somehow to convince themselves that permanent and impressive towns and cities would ultimately arise there, that these population clusters would develop into sizable centers of activity.

The consequence of all this was that they chose repeatedly to assign names from the Old World to places where they congregated.  Predictably, because a majority of the early settlers arrived from the British Isles, many of the place names, especially in the Northeast, derived from English counterparts.  So, in Massachusetts, small communities chose names such as Winchester, Yarmouth, Plymouth, Northampton, Ipswich, Bristol, Cambridge and naturally Oxford as well.  In Connecticut such well-known English towns as Avon, Cheshire, Danbury, Essex, Greenwich, New London, New Britain, Stratford and Windsor were selected.  In Pennsylvania, 73 communities traced their names back to England and in New York the total was 61.  Interestingly, because mostly New Englanders drifted West into Ohio, over sixty towns there adopted English place names, including Liverpool, Dover, Coventry, Bristol and Brighton.  Naturally, as new territories and states opened in the West, English influence declined markedly as seen in the fact that there were but seven English place names in in California, three in south Dakota, two in Kentucky and one in Iowa.

But that didn’t exhaust the possibilities.  In time immigrants arrived from areas other than Great Britain and predictably place names came to reflect that fact.  Consider, for example, such towns as Dublin, Texas; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Milan, Tennessee; Amsterdam and Copenhagen, New York; Berlin, New Hampshire; Naples Florida; Moscow, Idaho, and in Minnesota Oslo, Upsala and Belgrade.

Americans also dreamed big, attempted to recruit potential settlers to a particular location by suggesting that a promising future awaited them there.  What might help they, concluded, was to appropriate the names of ancient cities that had once been the envy of their age.  And so we have such places as Troy, New York; Corinth and Palmyra Maine; Toledo, Ohio; Cairo, Illinois; Memphis Tennessee; Venice and Vienna, Illinois, and Athens, Georgia.  How could one doubt the prospects of such places given their distinguished pedigrees?

Everyone who came to our shores in time became loyal Americans, but many still thought it wise, practical and comforting to link themselves, if only by name, to their places of origin or to cities widely recognized and long celebrated.


Bubble Bath


Remember when we were kids we’d blow bubbles and watch  them slowly drift away.  The bigger the bubble, the better.  We understood they couldn’t and wouldn’t last very long, and sure enough, to our great delight, they all would pop.  But then we’d blow more of them and watch the process repeat itself.  It was all great fun – no harm done.

The image of a bubble carried over into the world of finance where the stakes were much higher.  Bubbles could still be fun – for a time at least.  When they burst, however – which they always did – great distress followed.  The critical question of course was just when that would happen.  Timing was everything.

And so down through the centuries average people and more sophisticated “investors” have been caught up in speculative bubbles, swept along by popular enthusiasm and outsized expectations, i.e, the prospect of substantial returns.  Those familiar with this phenomenon inevitably point to such high profile bubbles as Tulipmania in the Netherlands in the 1630s, the South Sea Bubble in France in 1720 the Florida real estate bubble of the 1920s, and more recently the Dot com Bubble and the Housing Bubble..

As the Stock Market continues to advance to new heights early in 2015 the debate begins anew.  Are we once again entering  bubble territory?  Has, as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once phrased it, “irrational exuberance” taken over, or do stock price increases merely reflect better corporate earnings and exciting new business frontiers?

Bubbles generate euphoria.  There is excitement, optimism and  profits aplenty.  What homeowner, for example, in the early 2000s wasn’t thrilled to see the value of his house increase sharply year after year.  He could not overlook the fact that valuations were many times what he’d originally paid – and not that many years ago.  Eager to cash in on this windfall he signed up for home equity loans which released thousands upon thousands of dollars available for purchases of all kinds.  There were those warning that house prices were unsustainable, had never before in history risen so sharply, that bubble conditions existed, but why listen when other voices suggested the housing market had simply entered a new phase.  Then it all collapsed in 2008 and seven years later we are still feeling the effects of the crash.

Are we more vigilant today or just as prone to explain that “this time it is different?”  Of course bulls and bears have always debated each other, both arguing their case with conviction, certain that the other side has misread or misinterpreted developments.  Today we hear, for example, that the current rise of stock prices  to new highs is not like the Dot Com mania (1997-2000) where companies with little or no revenues and obviously unprofitable  were bid up to breathtaking levels.  On the contrary today’s high flyers have lengthy track records, enjoy substantial revenues, are profitable and whose stock prices have not risen into the stratosphere.  Moreover, current market leaders are operating in new exciting business areas such as social media, cloud computing, mobile networks, cyber security, biotechnology and robotics blazing the trail toward the economy of the future.  Furthermore, investors today are more sophisticated, have learned to be more critical after the Dot Com and housing debacles.  And then there is the Federal Reserve which dropped the ball last time and so will now scrutinize developments more carefully and intervene (e.g., by raising interest rates) before matters spin out of control.

This is all wishful thinking, the worriers declare.  Bubbles are addictive; attract people who are eager for the fast buck, who overlook warning signs and whose initial profits serve to draw them in ever more deeply.  Inevitably such folks will find a way to rationalize “bubbles” by insisting they represent true value, not speculative fantasies.  (“Companies will grow into their stock valuations.”)  There is, moreover, boatloads of cash in corporate and private hands chasing about recklessly for higher returns, scouring the economic landscape for promising opportunities.  Will government regulations tamp down speculation and nip bubbles before they swell?  History does not offer much comfort here.  Regulators are reluctant to toss monkey wrenches, douse economic exuberance and have as much trouble as everyone else distinguishing between future prospects and unhealthy binges.

And so today the worriers are pointing to sectors of the economy they deem shaky and vulnerable.  Too much money is chasing after relatively small bio-tech companies.  Social media enterprises, they insist, are highly overvalued while private equity and venture capital money is pouring into little more than start-up operations driving valuations beyond all reason.  Then, too, the housing market could become risky again, thanks to new regulations permitting smaller down payments for mortgages.  In addition stock market gains are clearly outdistancing the real growth of the U.S. economy where GNP increases are modest, wage gains barely perceptible, consumption restrained and worker productivity disappointing.

The Bubble hunters will no doubt continue their search, confident that human nature, and good old-fashioned American optimism will confirm their fears.  Until that happens, however, the party will go on.

Time Out


Once again baseball has recognized that to maintain interest in the sport it must address the inordinate length of the game (over three hours).  It is, as a result, preparing to introduce a number of rule changes viz. limiting time between innings, restricting hitters from leaving the batters box and discouraging managerial maneuvers related to challenges – in an effort to speed things up.  They may indeed help pick up the pace, but if not, custodians of the clock may be obliged to consider any one of the following more radical changes.

  • Even with a pitcher in trouble, conferences on the mound need not occur.  As in football, a listening device should be installed in the pitcher’s cap enabling the manager to speak directly to him from the dugout.
  • Towering “pop ups” to the infield consume far too much time and always result in a put out.  Accordingly, when one is hit the next batter should immediately approach the plate while the pitcher should receive a new ball and prepare for his next delivery.
  • In rundowns, if after six tosses the tag has not been applied play must stop and the runner awarded the more advanced base.
  • Given the time constraints, nothing should be deemed sacred.  Accordingly, the “7th inning stretch” may have to go.  Fans, after all, have been getting up throughout the game to cheer their team on, head off for food and drink and for bathroom breaks.  There is, therefore, no pressing need for yet another “delay of game” in the 7th inning.
  • A pitcher issuing an “intentional pass” need but point to first base and not consume time in the needless exercise of tossing four straight balls to his catcher.
  • After a strikeout the ball must be returned directly to the pitcher and not tossed casually around the infield.
  • Upon being ejected from a game the manager must head immediately back to the dugout or risk being fined for each ten-second interval he remains on the field.
  • A limit must be placed on perfunctory pick-off attempts in a given inning.
  • Hitters can adjust their wrist bands only once during each time at bat.
  • If after five successive foul balls a hitter hits a sixth, he must be awarded 1st base.
  • Broken bats are far too common and involve excessive down time.  Accordingly extra bats should be stored in a container below ground in an area behind home plate.  Batters could then easily obtain another one without much time elapsing.
  • Each team can insert no more than two relief pitchers in an inning.
  • Once a homerun is struck, batters need not circle the bases, but instead return directly to the dugout.
  • If by the 5th or 6th inning it is clear that a pitcher’s duel is under way, innings 7 and 8 can be skipped with the game advancing directly into the 9th inning.
  • Stadium displays after homeruns are struck – e.g., deafening sound effects or fireworks, should be strictly limited.

Solons of the sport may consider these recommendations slightly extreme, but if the new regulations fail to reduce the length of games they may be obliged to move more aggressively before time runs out.

Stick To Your Own Kind


There I am on line in the post office waiting to be served.  The fellow in front of me, a black guy, heads over to the counter.  That morning he’d received a notice to pick up a parcel for which he must sign.  But the postal worker, a white woman, after searching in the back, returns empty handed.  Why?  Because, she says, the carrier had not yet returned with it.  “Come back tomorrow.”  He did not appear upset (perhaps because he’s been talking on his cell phone throughout the entire period).  As he is about to leave, however, another postal employee, a black man, working at the far end of the counter, lets him know that he will pick it up and bring it to him later on.  (They were acquaintances and apparently lived in the same neighborhood.)   What a generous gesture, I thought.  And then I considered the fact that here was a black man reaching out to accommodate a “brother”.  I believe he also sensed the white woman had been a bit too brusque.

So what’s the point of this simple tale?  It’s about people taking care of their own, being more comfortable with each other, sticking together.  Such behavior probably originated at the very dawn of our species.  Survival depended upon supporting and favoring the tribe, being suspicious and uncomfortable with “outsiders.”   They’re likely to be unsympathetic, uncooperative, probably dangerous, even destructive.

We’ve been trying, with limited success, to move beyond such parochial notions.  “Diversity” has become the current watchword, leads we’re told to a richer, more rewarding state of affairs.  But often, while we pay lip service to the notion, we pull back, prefer the comfort zone of “our own kind” (whether ethnic group, social class or religious belief.}   People usually choose to live amongst and interact regularly with others much like themselves.  In high school cafeterias students self-segregate in a variety of ways.  The social divide in schools across America has become more pronounced.  College fraternities may nod toward diversity, but most recruit from predictable pools of candidates.  Country clubs generally proceed along the same path.  Unions often are “closed” to ethnic groups other than those dominant in a particular local.  Individuals of similar age are most comfortable together, police prefer the company of fellow officers, physicians with other doctors, athletes with athletes, soldiers with soldiers.  It’s not hard to understand.

But there’s a downside here – ignorance suspicion, parochialism, limited empathy, even cruelty,  We must attempt, therefore, to venture forth beyond ourselves, set aside the familiar, break barriers and, however challenging, engage with “others.”  Without denying who we are or have become we must cross divides and build bridges that allow us better to connect with each other.  Otherwise, we’ve advanced very little, are almost back to where we started.

To The Rescue


In the real world rescues sometimes succeed, but they fail as well.  Israel’s mission into Entebbe Uganda (1970) freed the hostages, as did the clever deception that spirited six Americans out of Tehran and the grasp of the Iranians.  Success also resulted from the actions of Navy Seals as they liberated Captain Richard Phillips and his crew after they were taken by Somali pirates.  But these events have to be weighed against particular failures such as the effort to free American hostages held in Iran (1980) and more recently the abortive  attempts to secure American and foreign nationals kidnapped by Isis forces.  Despite the skill and daring of American commandos and Special Forces they face long odds.  Favorable outcomes cannot be guaranteed.

But success is practically assured when one turns to rescues brought to us via the movies or in television dramas.  Last second rescues have served as a dramatic staple almost from the birth of film making.  That’s because it’s a sure fire device that rivets attention, draws audiences into the action and engages their emotions as few other events can.  Were we thinking dispassionately we’d  recognize we were being manipulated.  After all, we’ve seen it all before and almost always happy endings resulted.

But the point is that rescue scenes are designed to create enormous tension, anxiety and fear so that those watching, though not without hope, are nonetheless brought to the edge of their seats fearing the worst as a seemingly helpless “victim” is about to be dispatched by a despicable criminal or by some hellish device from which escape appears impossible.

It all might have started with the Perils of Pauline (1914), a film series in which the heroine is repeatedly rescued, escapes death at the last possible moment.  Then, too, how many films over the years featured an embattled wagon train, a besieged fort, or a stagecoach or train under attack by Indians or desperadoes; being saved by the timely arrival of “good guys” or the U.S. Cavalry?  Can there be a James Bond movie without our man and his squeeze being saved from extinction at the hands of a diabolical enemy?  What about a last minute pardon from the governor, averting the execution of an innocent man, the rescue of a kidnap victim or a well-aimed arrow that severs the rope from which our hero was about to swing?

What makes these scenes consistently compelling is the uncertainty surrounding the outcome.  And the terrible price failure will bring.  Can  the potential rescuer discover where the evil deed is to be done?  Can they arrive in time to foil the plan?  Can the victim somehow manage to buy time?

Variations on “stall” techniques are many.  There is, for example, the last request, usually for a cigarette.  That will, for the moment, put matters on hold.  Or there may be an effort to escape which unfortunately is thwarted, the situation returning to its original state.  Then there is the unraveling of the plot scenario whereby the would-be victim demonstrates, often to the surprise of his tormentor, how his cruel scheme unfolded.  This may be followed by the “bad” guy acknowledging his guilt and explaining his motives.  This delay in carrying out his dastardly act is accepted no doubt because he reckons it can only add to the agony of his intended victim.

At this point the rescuers arrive on the scene, usually with guns blazing.  That they will succeed in their mission is a foregone conclusion.  Among the audience, anxiety levels having peaked now plummet; a feeling of immense relief is palpable.  The “victim” often in tears, clearly shaken, is unshackled, untied and released.  An embrace can be expected.

Will writers and directors ever abandon the rescue scenario?  Has this plot line become hackneyed, too predictable?  There is little likelihood that will happen.  That’s because it never fails to work, to connect with our primal fears about helplessness and violent death, as well as our fantasies about escaping such a fate.  After all, don’t we always awaken just before our terrible nightmares reach their deadly conclusion?



As far bas as I can remember, I’ve loved when it snowed.  As a child in the city I eagerly listened to weather forecasts that predicted snow was on the way.  I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that snowstorms reduced the pace of urban activity and served as well to muffle the raucous sounds of the streets.  I marveled at the wondrous designs and shapes of individual snowflakes alighting upon my clothes and how collectively they produced a magical costume change, draping all surfaces in white garb.  Snow tidied things up, covered the irregular discordant features of the urban landscape in a constant, unbroken cloak of white.

Of course my enthusiasm went beyond aesthetics.  I was a kid, so snow meant the possibility that school would be closed, that I could walk to a nearby park and sled down a hill, that I could pack the stuff into snowballs and toss them at passing cars and trucks  and at other kids my age (especially girls).

Even as the snow continued falling I also recognized that its dominance would be short lived, that the city was too formidable an adversary, could not be overcome or neutralized by such a crystalline carpet.  Looking out onto the street from my fifth floor apartment I resented pedestrians walking along on the snow, particularly how their footsteps marred an otherwise unbroken surface and how cars disrespectfully plowed through the white stuff, often revealing the dark, dull surfaces below.  What satisfaction for me when continued snowfall soon covered up these “blemishes.”

Later in life I spent considerable time in the country during winters.  There snow would master the surroundings, transform the landscape for extended periods.  Here snow could land on evergreens and tree branches and create a magical kingdom decked out in winter’s finest.  In these surroundings snow could pile up to impressive depths making snow shoes an absolute necessity.  It could also accumulate on roofs, transforming homes, making them appear ever so much larger.  The country was made for snow; co-existence was possible and to a degree mutually beneficial.

As the years have passed I still delight in snow, but have also come to accept other perspectives.  Snow, especially in the cities and suburbs, is the enemy of order.  Thus, as soon as it falls upon certain surfaces, it is attacked with shovels, snow blowers, snowplows, as well as salt and sand.  It is an adversary to be defeated as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.  Snow produces endless traffic delays, accidents, heart attacks, deaths, together with costly clean-up operations.  Childish delight in snow must yield before these sobering circumstances.

Snow in the cities and suburbs inevitably ends in disappointment.  Bright, smooth surfaces, once temperatures rise, degrade rapidly.  Puddles form, slush develops, icy areas emerge and dirt accumulates along the surface.  What is sadder than snow piled up along a well-travelled road or highway?  It is rotted, pitted, horribly blackened, a  far cry from its original lustrous appearance.  What once was everywhere has now shrunk to isolated patches; what was originally  pure and pretty has turned unsightly.  The fond memories of my boyhood remain, but they are now measured against the reality check of adulthood.

To Do


Most individuals and families understand that they should act responsibly and attend, as best they can, to a number of essential matters to ensure their long-term wellbeing and security.  That would include such things as eating well, exercising, completing one’s education or training, maintaining adequate savings, purchasing life and health insurance policies and contributing regularly to a pension plan.  Moving beyond the personal to the national level, what would such a basic “to do” list look like for the United States?  What is it that our nation should attend to in order to address existing deficiencies and ensure its future wellbeing?

  •  Restructure our schools and colleges and reform teacher education and training enabling us to produce graduates with achievement levels at least equal to those of students in other advanced nations.
  • Develop the capacity to neutralize cyberattacks and security breaches while protecting proprietary information and privacy.
  • Reduce gun violence and gun fatalities, deliberate or accidental as far as possible.
  • Increase voter participation levels so that turnouts average 60% or better.
  • Achieve a reasonably rapid transition from fossil fuels to large scale reliance on renewable sources of energy.
  • Devise effective policies to bolster the income and morale of America’s working classes.
  • Rein in the flow of oversized contributions to PACs and political campaigns.
  • Make affordable health care insurance available to every American.
  • Resolve the deadlock on immigration policy by dealing fairly with undocumented individuals already in the U.S. while limiting the entry of “illegals” in the future.
  • Introduce policies to significantly reduce our prison population, protecting society while re-integrating former convicts into the mainstream as much as possible.
  • Introduce effective campaigns and therapies to reduce obesity, cigarette smoking, drug use, spousal abuse and mental health disorders.
  • Limit gerrymandering and end the stranglehold political parties have over redistricting.
  • Restructure the federal tax code so as to eliminate or reduce special favors and limit tax avoidance.
  • Revise government regulations to end burdensome, costly and unnecessary provisions.
  • Overhaul federal government agencies and programs to reduce bloat, administrative overlap and duplication, as well as programs that are ineffective.
  • Streamline, modernize and restructure our military and military budgets to reflect the challenges our current and future adversaries are likely to pose.
  • Introduce programs to revitalize rural America, including efforts to achieve more sustainable agricultural production.
  • Safeguard air quality and the relative purity of our water resources.
  • Reduce poverty, homelessness and food insecurity.
  • Expand mass transit and transportation while reducing traffic congestion on our roads and highways.
  • Move more rapidly to integrate America’s minority populations into the mainstream.
  • Reduce our bloated financial sector and restrain speculative activities, monopolistic practices and frivolous “exotic” financial vehicles.
  • Have colleges put a premium on learning subject matter while better preparing students for  contemporary workplaces and existing job opportunities.
  • Medical care must become less costly with a reduction of medical errors and unnecessary interventions, and a reimbursement system based more on outcomes than on treatments.
  • Women must finally achieve parity with men to be achieved by appropriate policies or initiatives such as equal pay, day care, abortion rights, comparable office-holding levels etc..
  • Devise policies to support seniors, whether they remain in  the workplace, are retired or enter  the later stages of their lives.

We’ve always regarded ourselves as a “can do” nation.  Imagine how much better off

we’d all be were we able to check off many of the items on the list.

Breaking Borders


Human society is much about demarcating borders and boundaries as a guide and a gauge of social acceptance and stability.  People are expected to accept a given set of relationships and adhere to standards assumed to have been long-established.  To question these norms, let alone openly depart from them, risks disrupting fundamental relationships assumed to be fixed and essential.

But look around at what’s happening across the globe.  National boundaries are under siege.  Millions have left Mexico and crossed over into the United States.  And arriving in Mexico at the same time are masses of people fleeing Central America.  In the Middle East, refugees by the millions have crossed borders while North Africans continue to try and survive water passages to reach destinations in Europe.  To many, these and other border crossings threaten national identity and unity.

Violence, too, has extended beyond traditional boundaries.  Distinctions between civilian non-combatants and soldiers are eroding more than ever.  Suicide bombers regularly attack marketplaces, mosques, malls and hotels – anywhere where targets of opportunity are present.  Conventional armies rarely clash anymore along clearly demarcated battle fronts.  Instead insurgents engage counterinsurgents and Death Squads clash with Special Op forces.  And from above unmanned drones patrol the skies with missiles guided by controllers sometimes located thousands of miles away.  In asymmetric warfare battle lines have disappeared; with terror tactics anyone is a target.

Gender identifications no longer display their former clarity.  Most societies had, for centuries, enforced strict lines of sexual identification, imposed strong taboos against any open deviation.  Here again rigid boundaries have weakened and enforcement withered.  Gender choices have expanded, sexual identity has become fluid, freedom of expression widely accepted.

Marriage boundaries had always displayed flexibility, still the situation today results in far less clarity.  Extra-marital relationships, for example, appear to be more common.  And marriage itself, still standard practice, has become one choice of many.  Couples live together for lengthy periods then marry or often don’t.  Meanwhile divorce seems to have leveled off, though it remains at elevated levels.

Educational boundaries are shifting dramatically.  Home schooling continues to grow.  Charter schools have become far more common, attracting millions of students.  “Teach for America” has recruited recent college graduates who, it is hoped, will bring less traditional methods and additional energy and enthusiasm into classrooms.  National standards of competence have been introduced and entered local school systems to become the measures of performance.  And finally collegiate boundaries have become less predictable now that on-line instruction is coming of age.  “Campus life” will soon have broader definitions than ever before.

National boundaries have been erased as products and services move freely around the world.  (American movies, for example, often produce higher box office receipts overseas than what is generated within the U.S.).  The boundaries separating man and machines have become less sharp.  Pacemakers and defibrillators are routinely installed in people as are hearing aids; and doctors operate from a distance thanks to robotic-assisted surgery, and soon nanotechnology will allow the insertion of miniature devices into the body capable of cruising through our bloodstream.

In politics the boundary between facts and fiction, long problematical, has become blurred as never before.  In science, at least as discussed in the public arena, the boundary between accepted theories and unfounded assertions has been crumbling of late.

If the fate of Humpty Dumpty is any guide, boundaries once breached are unlikely to be restored.  The choice then becomes one of either pulling back some then making a stand, or coming to terms with current realities and establishing new, more flexible configurations.



Primitive humans, we’re told, managed but a precarious existence by living in small isolated groups and by minding their own business.  Dangers lurked everywhere so distrust and fear seemed necessary for survival.  No one beyond the group could be trusted.  They were “strangers,” “aliens,” “outsiders” whose presence threatened disruption, even destruction.

Modern man has, in this respect, retained similar suspicions.  Group bonds remain strong, local loyalties and arrangements much preferred.  Danger often is perceived to exist beyond these strict boundaries.  One must always be wary of outsiders often intent upon meddling, especially those peddling alien ideas, incompatible with established beliefs.  They must therefore be rejected, forcefully if necessary.

Acknowledging the fundamental attraction of such appeals let us call attention to the frequent use of this tactic.  Label the cause as “alien” or the individuals involved as “outside agitators” and you evoke powerful primal emotions and enlist widespread support.  Consider the considerable evidence, both historical and current that supports this proposition.

In the pre-Civil War South, Southerners were outspoken in their defense of slavery.  Accordingly those who questioned this institution were dismissed as disruptive “outsiders,” abolitionists stirred up by Northern propagandists.  This led to a concerted effort to block the distribution of Abolitionist literature coming from the North into the South and to drive out “troublemakers” opposed to slavery.  After the Civil War a defeated South would resist efforts to support those formerly enslaved and to transform Southern society by labelling as “carpetbaggers” Northerners who entered the region for such purposes.  These “outsiders” posed a threat to Southern institutions and were therefore not welcome.

In the years that followed, Northern laborers attempted to organize unions, resulting in bitter clashes between Company owners and workers.  Corporate spokesmen repeatedly labelled those sent in to organize the work force as “outside agitators” whose sole purpose was to stir up trouble.  Strikers on the other hand were outraged when workers from outside their communities were brought in to replace them.  They were “scabs” whose sole purpose was to undermine efforts to gain better wages and improved conditions.

In the 20th Century demonstrations and protests of all kinds were frequently portrayed as the work of Communists, outsiders clearly, who were intent upon overturning society.  During the Civil Rights movement many whites in the South insisted the turbulence was purely the work of “outside agitators” from the North who had no business interfering with local arrangements of long standing.

We recognize a similar mindset and strategy in recent times as when certain social welfare proposals (especially those already in place in Western Europe) are stigmatized as “Socialistic” and therefore “UnAmerican” or in tirades against the federal government for meddling in local matters (when for example federal enforcement officials override the local police) or even when people complain about “outside money” pouring in to influence local elections.  On the international scene we witness the same phenomenon as when Vladimir Putin blames outsiders for the disorder in the Ukraine or in Chechnya, or when Chinese leaders explain disturbances in Hong Kong as the work of “outside agitators,” or when numerous foreign leaders accuse the CIA of destabilizing their regimes.

And so it will probably always be that what is unwelcome, unacceptable and threatening  will be explained as originating from the outside.  Being “foreign” and “external” it must, as a consequence, be challenged and ultimately rejected by those insisting they are fully capable of managing their own affairs.