A Low Tax Dystopia?

It seems like only the most punitive souls would enact legislation that mobilizes the dead hand of reactionism.

This website is predicated on the assumption that there are better, if not “perfect,” responses to exigencies that need remedies. Humans are problem solvers.  Challenges that block our objectives are met with responses that—with some effort and empathy—provide suitable solutions or workarounds. In the realm of communication studies, “exigency theory” is a bedrock idea used to explain why humans are motivated to verbal or physical action. In this model, a policy that is enacted by a political unit should be a response that solves a persistent problem. Without this core assumption, the ongoing enterprises of our political life can’t make much sense. We rightly assume that policy is guided by the impulse to ameliorate a serious condition or injustice.

All of this brings us to the policy-making processes unfolding in some of the states. Many along the southern tier of the nation are benefiting from a continuous migration of families and corporate headquarters to warmer climates, where the candy of low tax rates and available workers easily outweighs sometimes failing school and social services. And this gives rise to a paradox.

Policies that have a basic effect of exposing people to greater risks are hard to fathom.

Political bodies particularly in Texas seem determined to enact policies that create challenges rather than alleviate them. Newly enacted laws that impose hardships on individuals are difficult to fathom, especially when it is evident that no greater social good is being served. Specifically, the state’s executive and deliberative bodies have faced several challenges where something approximating a perfect response eludes them. To be sure, we can have different policy preferences.  But it seems like only the most punitive souls would enact legislation that mobilizes the dead hand of reactionism, for instance: allowing citizens to deputize themselves as bounty hunters to criminalize women or girls who are trying to end an ill-timed pregnancy; permitting firearms to be carried on to the campuses of public universities;  prohibiting the teaching of the nation’s checkered racial and social history in schools; or forbidding institutions to require face masks to stem the spread of disease. These sorry examples of reactionary policy may help explain how a school administrator in the Lone Star State could have reminded teachers dealing with The Holocaust to be sure to teach “both sides.”

It is impossible to imagine how citizens are made safer or more secure by these examples of ersatz leadership. It only adds to our sense of dismay to know that seventeen members of the Texas congressional delegation sought to void the election of President Biden and disenfranchise four other states.

Of course, all of this pretends not to notice the obvious: that our political life has become a series of calculated set pieces: dramas of status and resistance intended to be more expressive than instrumental. We know the impulse when we would like to scold someone rather than try to find common ground.  As the Austin-based journalist Molly Ivins once noted, “three Texas themes are religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo.”  None of these postures need much cooperation from others; they are also not up to the demands of policy-making in the 21st century.

Corporate Texas generally shelters itself against the rest of the state by settling in enclaves surrounding Austin, Houston or Dallas. But companies like A.T. & T., Frito-Lay, Dell Computer and (most recently) Tesla, need to begin to notice that they are at least indirectly enabling parties and candidates mobilized to sabotage the fragile machinery of governing. At least from the northeast, it is hard to see key political figures like Governor Greg Abbott as authentic public servants. At some point he must have supported actions to make the lives of his constituents better.  But from a distance they are hard to find.

The Pandemic Has Not Lessened the Value of Direct Eye Contact

The pendemic left us with crippling distances from each other. It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves. The concurrent inability to make eye contact starves communication of its hold on us.  Even in the best of circumstances, the meta-gaze of a Zoom call is never going to be the same as the direct eye contact in real space.   


A recent New York Times report describes managers at “fast casual” restaurants insisting that staffers greet new customers with a reassuring and direct “welcome.”  Apparently businesses found too many first-time customers leaving if no one in the business acknowledged them in the first minute. It’s a specific application of the more general principle of a direct gaze as the near-certain requirement of  interpersonal engagement.  Child development specialists remind us that an infant’s search for its parent’s eyes is not only a joy, but an early sign of a child’s readiness to become a social being.  It’s nature’s way of cementing the bond that assures that the many needs of a relatively helpless newborn will be met.

                              Lars Plougmann

The expectation of eye contact with another is a floating but existing norm across most cultures. Even experts offering advice for choosing a new pet from the pound note that a good bet is usually an animal that gazes on our face.  And it’s clearly true that  our pets are veterans at the game of shamelessly using soulful looks to get us to provide some useful service.

It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Try a simple experiment to test the essential nature of direct eye contact. Talk to a friend or relative face to face, but look at one of their ears rather than their eyes. The poor victim will often move to try to adjust to your off-kilter stare. They want to be at the center glidepath of your eyes to find signals of your engagement.  Looking away suggests you want to break off the exchange. It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Of course what is going on is more than reciprocal staring.  We have an entire lexicon of signals that are modulated through the eyes and the facial muscles that surround them.  Ask an actor to perform the emotions of surprise, concern, fear, or joy.  Most of the work of suggesting these inner states is going to happen within the pupils of the eye and the muscles of the eye-lids and the brows immediately above them.  Often these are the only tools a film or television actor has, since they are usually shot in tight closeups.  Witness the last half hour of Damien Chazelle’s much-praised La La Land (2016). The final scenes of the former couple are predicated on our noticing eyes that lock as if their owners believed they still had a shared future.

What is obvious here still needs to be said, especially after we begin to abandon the enforced isolation that came with the pendemic.  We may need to retrain ourselves to use rewarding face to face exchanges. The more we continue to hold on to mediated forms of personal communication—texting,  phoning, e-mail and their equivalents—the less we will exercise what should still be a natural inclination.

Most Americans who are around children have given a collective sigh of relief to see youngsters return to the classroom. Masked, they may be.  But their eyes can still connect, with all the positive recognition of another they can give.  Back in school, we know they have regained their birthright to build connections and create meaning–all without going through the confining hardware of digital screens.