Archive for the 'on Society' Category

Jazz – A Riff on Integrity

June 30th, 1960, Tanglewood, slipping in a side door and climbing to secluded seats high above the stage. Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Gene Wright, and Paul Desmond are warming up ahead of their evening performance. I remember Desmond’s notes rising clear, fully formed, beautiful, intimate, unmistakably Desmond. I experience that perfection still.

May 30th, 1977, Bear Creek, California. Paul Desmond died that day. A San Francisco station playing his music though the night. Pure Desmond – clarity, notes projected with perfect understanding of their shapes and relationships. His music an expression of absolute integrity. I sat up and listened until I fell asleep sometime before dawn. What has always made Desmond’s music beautiful for me is the integrity.

April 3rd, 2014, dense blowing snow out the window, a good fire in the wood stove, Paul Desmond in the background – thinking about virtue and integrity. I’m wondering why so few people, especially in high places, seem incapable of the virtues of personal integrity and intellectual honesty once considered essential to the conduct of a viable civil society. How long does any society have to live I wonder when there are so many liars and so many lies? A society based on lies cannot be viable and 4000 years of history give truth to this. We have always suffered rent-seeking politicians, morally corrupt judges and greedy businessmen but they were not then, as they are now, the dominant minority.

I’m reminded of the Cold War, behind the Iron Curtain, cynicism was the coin of the realm. About the two major Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda it was said, “There is no truth in Izvestia and no news in Pravda.” amusing cynical take but not so amusing when applied to courts of law or Congress in a democracy where truth needs to be the vital currency. What happens when the foundational, “All men are created equal” is no longer a belief? When a court, in a God-like gesture, endows corporations with human status? How often can beliefs be disregarded before they are discarded? What replaces abandoned beliefs?

In the commons, integrity and intellectual honesty have all but disappeared, strangled by insatiable unrelenting greed by politicians, business people and judges. A judge excused a jail term for a wealthy man who raped his 3 year old daughter because, the judge said, he wouldn’t “fare well” in prison. Does she make the same allowances for not-wealthy people? Is this judicial integrity? Do society and children deserve this cynicism?

There is a high societal price for deceptive political calculation that highjacks hope but delivers alienation. There was that “hope and change” sales pitch for example that eventually revealed itself as shuck-and-jive-business-as-usual politics, regressive education policies, secret rendition and tapped telephones. Lots of us fell for it. Will we ever again be lured to the rocks of disappointment and cynicism because we wanted to believe? Cynicism is, by itself, likely the most dangerous and contagious disease in any society it undermines everything corroding all that it touches. Cynicism destroys belief, hope, faith, trust – all the necessary components of healthy viable societies, it bleeds any social contract dry.

Brooks Adams in his 1896 “The Law of Civilization and Decay”, speaking of 5th C Rome says, “Wealth is the weapon of a monied society; for though itself lacking the martial instinct, it can, with money, hire soldiers to defend it.” Updated for our times it could read, “… it can, with money, hire politicians and other people of low self-esteem to defend and promote it.” This idea is nowhere more articulately expressed than in the recent 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision allowing even more corporate money into the election process. What will be the ultimate consequences of corporations being made human by the Supreme Court? Where social integrity is absent, social commitment has historically taken its leave because people no longer believe.

When a populace no longer perceives a common good it devolves to everyone for themselves as a matter of survival. This cannot be denied nor, once past a certain point, can it be resisted. There is always a critical point in momentum that is irreversible when chaos supersedes order. If plutocrats think they can easily herd impoverished angry mobs they are paddling against a rip-tide of history. Human beings never long tolerate being treated as serfs when they have tasted better fruit.

From the top of the food chain on down our country is rapidly taking on classic symptoms of a failed society. I never thought the day would come when the UN would cite my country for human rights violations. This is a new aspect of our self-anointed “exceptionalism” wherein we are cited for jailing homeless people, torture and 23 other violations of human rights while berating other countries for doing the same. It must be understood, the social contract is at once experience, perception and belief. How can rational people not look back over 4000 years of one civilization after another rising and then falling to the same causes without seeing themselves? They must ask, where are our virtues? What happened to our integrity?

Barbarians Within the Gates

From the start the human race has been at odds with itself struggling between two distinct polarities – barbarity and civilization, the Yin and Yang of of human nature and experience. This polarity has forever been the root struggle between evolution and devolution, between community and savagery, civilization and barbarity, decency and vulgarity. Naked apes evolved materially from stone axes to swords to nuclear weapons, from animal skins to three piece suits and private jets. Wardrobe styles and technology changed but not base instincts. We are simply well-dressed technologically advanced apes.

While Arizona legislators are busying themselves with prohibiting undocumented  persons from using public toilets, a Baptist pastor in Troy, New York, is giving away AR-15 semi-automatic rifles for church attendance saying: “This is exactly what we have always done for the last 2000 years since Jesus walked the shores of Galilee.” Baptists handing out rifles for 2000 years! Jesus walking the shores of Galilee with an AR-15! Even religion has been highjacked and far from ministering has served to exacerbate becoming itself an expression of barbariity. This kind of madness cannot be made up.

The polarities of the human condition have not changed. Barbarians are still among and within us starting wars of conquest, grabbing wealth, asserting social and political domination. Aggression takes the form of unrelenting insatiable greed. Daily life remains a struggle between the quest for a humane civilized world versus those whose quest is social control, accumulation of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and disregard for the human condition.  Virgil’s 1st C BCE observation that for some there is an unrelenting quest for “empire without end” remains as true today as it did then.

We must ask, where do today’s barbarians want to take the world? What kind of future do they envision? Do hungry children and sickly elders without health care populate Paul Ryan’s visions of the future? Is this the stuff his dreams are made of? The barbarians argue that government, which many of us believe to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, has no business helping people, even the least fortunate among us. What kind of unmitigated gall does it take to publicly assert income inequality does not lead to the destruction of a society when history is one story after another of civilizations falling to exactly that dynamic. In matters of civil liberty as defined by the Constitution and Bill of Rights and with no foreign nation threatening us, elected and not-elected officials cast aside the guarantees of our foundational documents with secret judicial tribunals to make us “safe” from ourselves, locking people up without due process. Our democracy is fast becoming illusion and delusion.

There’s more of course, the list could go on. We could examine the motives of the billionaires funding long lists of so-called foundations, institutes, think tanks, political action committees, ad nauseum functioning as destructive propaganda machines. A well funded all out assault on the American social contract is underway striking at voting rights as well as social programs. If the coalition of Koch funded organizations were a separate country we would have declared war on them a long time ago. Daddy Koch worked for Joe Stalin, one of the evil butchers of all time, and made a fortune doing so; his money is a gift that keeps on giving, a case of inherited moral infantile paralysis. The barbarians are at the gates with an abundant army of insecure moral cripples desperate for attention and recognition to do their bidding. But why? Why now? To what end?

This country is already in dire straits conducting endless purposeless wars around the globe, wars which will never yield “victory”. Purposeless because the underlying motives are never what is publicly declared. The obvious purposes lie in sustaining a powerful arms industry and petroleum interests. We intervene because we don’t “like” one side or the other, we violate the rights of the indigenous people to self-determination to further global ambitions of powerful economic interests, wasting our national treasure, sacrificing our young men and women while reducing our once thriving middle-class to servile and semi-servile status scraping by to make their monthly payments.

While the roles of the unemployed grow so does the number of lobbyists per legislator in the Nation’s capital – something on the order of 20 per legislator at last count. America is for sale in Washington DC where legislators and lobbyists can relive themselves without looking over their shoulders. There are many among us in positions of power who are morally still swinging through the trees.

Sub-Titles

The sub-title of Mike Lofgren’s, “The Party Is Over”, is “How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted”. The sub-title struck me as a morality tale in and of itself and reminded me of “The Death of Character”, by James Davidson Hunter published several years earlier. The sub-title of Hunter’s is “Moral Education in an Age Without Good and Evil”. While Hunter explores how a lack of moral sensibility leads a society to failure Lofgren details how this is actually happening in the US. The books are closely related, the theme of both being the lack of morality in the social commons. We experience this lack nearly every day in the melodrama of politics at the national level, a cruder version at the state level, antics at the international level, and in the conduct of life in general. Is this a new normal or has it ever been different?

When politics and religion are joined at the hip they become a force, a Trojan Horse within the society causing good and evil to lose their meanings. The ethical contrast between what is right and what is wrong becomes diluted creating a moral morass with no compass pointing the way out. We, perforce, come to be a society adrift, a population set against itself. Tri-corner hats, knickers and white knee socks are not what this country ever was and claiming otherwise is simplistic and dishonest. It is misdirected street theater acting out juvenile fantasies, a dream world that never existed. (Oh, by the way, the original Tea Partiers disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians not middle-class burghers.) The right questions are not being addressed. Our real problems as a country have not been caused by the working poor, unwed mothers, impoverished elderly, nor homeless people. We are being bombarded with the politics of distraction; a cover-up. Moral questions must be asked.

What kind of moral country have we become where an 81-year-old woman can be arrested and jailed for feeding birds on her own property or where a judge lightly sentences a man for raping a girl he knew was underage on the premise she seemed older than she was. Dilution of right and wrong takes place everyday and at all levels of society. A dilution to the extent that public trust of law enforcement agencies and officers is reduced to fear and disrespect, us and them. There isn’t any clear path to trusting police when a bed-ridden elderly man in his 80s is shot to death because a home-invading police officer suspects the guy has a gun, or when a kid answers the door for police and is shot to death because his TV game remote is mistaken for a weapon. There are so many examples it makes a person’s head swim. Dilution is become dissolution and dissolution inevitably becomes disintegration. A society disintegrates when people lose interest in the social contract to concentrate on personal survival.

Lofgren’s book details his experiences over 28 years in the Congressional cesspit of national partisan politics and the narrow craven interests driving a socially destructive political agenda. Lofgren worked as a Republican staffer and as a Senior Analyst for the House and Senate Budget Committee. Elected officials he reveals are in service to insatiable billionaires and corporations for whom there is no “enough”.  More importantly, aside from profit, they have no social contract with America. It was difficult to read Lofgren’s book because so much of what he describes with an insider’s knowledge of detail is discouraging and, more than that, disgusting.

Hunter, the author of “The Death of Character”, posits “History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in elevated values is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy.” What better measure could be offered than the fact that the US has been at war somewhere in the world without a draft military since 1973, since the war in Vietnam? From 2000 onwards, the military budget has just about doubled while budgets and support for public education and health care have dramatically diminished. Who profits from this game?

Together these two books paint a sad picture of America’s devolution from inclusion to exclusion, from the sort of patriotism that motivates individuals to place the common good above self-interest to socially destructive thoughtlessness and selfishness heedless of the commons we must all, like it or not, share. It is especially difficult, I think, for those who have known a better time which, while not free of similar issues, was not defined by them.

There was a time when public officials appearing at political conventions did not cravenly proclaim a direct line to God, mock the President, out and out lie for applause, or shamelessly wave rifles around to demonstrate their manliness or whatever it is they suppose waving a gun proves. It isn’t so much what a person does as what won’t they do that defines them. It would appear the sub-title of American politics has become “There is Very Little Some Politicians Won’t Do, Consequences Be Damned”.

Envy – American Style

The New York Times “Sunday Review” (March 2nd, 2014) published a genuine forehead-slapping essay, “The Downside of Inciting Envy”, by Arthur C. Brooks, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute one of the many Koch propaganda mills. What came immediately to mind, when I read it, was Sessue Hayakawa’s speech as Colonel Saito in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. Without a trace of irony, Saito advised his British prisoners of war, ”… be happy in your work”. I saw this film as a college freshman and never, in 57 years, had I given it as much thought as on reading the Brooks essay.

What Brooks actually said is, “be happy in your poverty people”, otherwise you will experience a “downside”. Be happy in your impoverishment and disenfranchisement. Perhaps his sponsors are worried the natives are becoming disgruntled and restless but they are also misreading the anger and resentment. The apparent discord is not necessarily directed towards other people’s wealth, it is more likely resentment over the destruction of their American dream, resentment over being driven into poverty – a new world where a college diploma is more about crushing debt than about upward mobility.

Without missing a beat, Brooks’ essay includes the standard pitch for privatized education, tax rules that favor the wealthy so they can “spark hiring”, and “recalibrating the safety net” such that people will be “happy” in their low-paying dead-end jobs. The author chastises and, not incidentally, insults those who disdain dead-end jobs arrogantly calling those jobs a crucial “first step”. Excuse me, but a “dead-end” is not a first step, Mr. Brooks, it is, by definition, a “last step”.

The author is plainly concerned, as are his patrons, with the possibility of “class” retribution or even revolution by those who perceive the game as “rigged”. If 70% of a population perceive a game as rigged it probably is rigged. What fool wants to play in a rigged game?

Let me suggest how “envy” is properly applied to today’s rigged game. Envy, of course, has to do with the desire to have or possess what others have. In this case “envy” has to do with opportunity more than material goods. The opportunity game is what should not be rigged. In a civilized viable society opportunity and access to resources must be equitably distributed, health care, for example, cannot not be a game of chance based on social class. To want these equalities of opportunity is not a “destructive social comparison”, as Mr. Brooks would have us believe, it is historically foundational to the human condition and, even more importantly, to a democratic society.

The mild form of “revolt” by Americans Mr. Brooks fears is merely asking a question as opposed to begging it, as Brooks makes the theme of his essay. Brooks seems to think he can perform bank shots with fallacies, using circular arguments and slogans such as “destructive social comparison”. Sorry, but we aren’t falling for that. When people can’t put food on their tables after 40 hours of work, it isn’t fantasy — it’s reality and no amount of bloviating around the point is going to make it otherwise. If Mr. Brooks wants us to share his “joyful mission of freedom, opportunity and enterprise for all” then his American Enterprise Institute is going to have to educate itself about shared consequences from shared enterprise for everyone. The words “share” and “everyone” are the operative terms.

Loonies On The Path ….

Remember the Pink Floyd tune, “Brain Damage”?

“And everyday the paperboy brings more.

  • Grant wealthy individuals more votes than the rest of us.
  • Tax the working poor at a higher rate than billionaires.
  • Put undocumented workers in jail for using public toilets.
  • Privatize Social Security, indeed, do away with all social safety nets.
  • Make teachers responsible for failing students.
  • Do away with health care.
  • Permit guns everywhere. South Carolina residents may now carry guns into restaurants. Wait for first shoot-out at a salad bar.

The lunatics are in my hall.”

  • In Chicago a Republican candidate for office told her base autism is punishment by the “almighty” for support of abortion and marriage equality.
  • In Texas, Republican Joe Barton, explained, as wind power is a “finite resource”, harnessing it “would slow the winds down” causing temperatures to go up.  You can’t make up stuff like this.
  • In Georgia a legislator equated women to cows and pigs when it comes to childbirth.

… if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes …”

  • Rick Santorum (Remember him?) declared that only “God” can mandate health care.
  • Republican governors led by none other than Mr. “Ooops” himself, Rick Perry, refused to implement Medicaid. As Rick put it, “I will not be a party to socialize health care.” It’s all about him isn’t it?
  • In Wisconsin a Catholic US Congressman criticized the Pope for speaking out against barbaric treatment of the poor and the “idolatry” of money.

 

The lunatic is on the grass.”

Day after day the news reports one outrageous assault after another against the social contract. Social body blows from politicians, billionaires, and the bankers who bankrupted thousands of small investors and savers with impunity. One of those bankers was recently rewarded with a multi-million dollar raise. Our Citizens United Supreme Court happily awarded a presidential election to the Republican candidate (They knew his Daddy.) and have granted political organizations status as human beings. The Court also decided that it’s perfectly OK for the police to strip search you for jay-walking. Drop your shorts America. Again – this stuff cannot be made up – it has happened, it is happening, and we are living with it. Let’s not even discuss Florida where it seems to be legal open season on black kids.

The lunatic is in my head.”

In light of all this it seems to me reasonable to ask what motivates people to act barbarically. Many of the politicians are self-identified “Christians” whom it is presumed are supposed to integrate the teachings of their deity into their own lives and actions. On evidence, however, nothing could be further from the truth. So, what’s going on here? Why would Paul Ryan object to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance? What moral authority informs his imagination?

Got to keep the loonies on the path.”

Human society has always oscillated between physical and moral challenges; between civilization and barbarity. This cycle has determined the course and ultimately, the fate of all societies. The entire thrust of social evolution we always hope has been about making a more secure, more equitable, and healthier world for more and more people. If that be the case, why the relentless assault on civilization and civilized behavior? Should we not be past that? Well, it seems obvious the barbarians have not gone away, they have not been truly assimilated, humanized, or integrated into the mainstream of human consciousness. The barbarians are still with us, it’s just that they now wear suits not animal skins.

James Davidson Hunter in, The Death of Character, said this: “History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in elevated virtues is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy. … Character matters, we believe, because without it, trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.” Where lies the character of politicians who would deny school lunches to children? Many “great” societies have come and gone throughout history and when there have been great inequalities in the goods of life as Hunter has indicated, social collapse inevitably follows. What loyalty to the economic and social contract is expected when employees are reduced to poverty wages because entrepreneurs prefer to maximize profit? When employers prefer to provide information about welfare instead of paying a living wage, what are the possibilities?

Both Aristotle (Politics) and Plato (Laws) warned that too great a disparity in the goods of life lead to disruption of societies. We live in a time of unequal justice when people of color are still singled out for police abuse, when profit motives exceed any sense of economic justice defined as living wages, when the jobless are blamed for their joblessness by elected officials unconscionably neglecting to acknowledge that American jobs and industries have been relocated offshore to countries where a living wage is a fraction of what it is here. Can we escape this defection from civility? Probably not. So, everyday, when the paperboy or internet brings more news of lay-offs, food stamp cuts, denial of medical care and welfare for the disabled, disenfranchised, and the unemployed will “the dam break open many years too soon”? We’ll see.

The lunatics aren’t just on the grass – they’re in high places making decisions that determine the path and, ultimately, the fate of the country – our embattled democracy, our society. If Michelle Bachmann is correct declaring we are at the “end days” perhaps none of this matters. Perhaps the band was right, there’s someone in our heads, but it’s not us.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.”

Atlas Slugged

Poor Atlas. He never knew what hit him. There he was holding up the world wondering how he got involved in this train wreck of simplistic political social philosophy. Even that word, “philosophy”, was beggared, blind-sided, misappropriated, knocked for a loop. Where did it come from? How did it happen to him of all deities? “Give me a break!” he muttered struggling with his burden. “I’m supposed to be holding up the world, for Pete’s sake.” And so it was that poor Atlas got slugged into lending his good name to the title of a simple-minded fairy tale wherein there are easy answers to every complex problem, where working-class people are depicted as low life slugs looking for easy money. A veritable door stop of a book, a mighty tome glorifying greed to be ingested, digested, and regurgitated by right-wing makers and shakers; a fairy tale for wannabe Titans of the universe.

The book, Atlas Shrugged, lies somewhere between a right-wing bodice ripper and a biblical journey into a science fictionalized promised land; a 1668 page celebration of greed and selfishness ingested by  socially, morally, and intellectually challenged true believers living and hiding in their own magical secret valleys seeking justification and reinforcement for anti-social instincts. The lesson of the book seems to be, inequality is justice manifest for the self-appointed select few. The book, by the way, is required reading for Paul Ryan’s staffers. Makes you wonder.

Funded by such socially enlightened billionaires as Charles Koch, the Cato Institute generates essays similar to the novel’s manifesto. For example, “Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality” in which it is claimed “There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.” That kind of intellectual rubbish falls under the rubric of preaching to the choir and could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged. In this case the choir being the billionaire sponsors and a chorus of minions based on a score by Ayn Rand. It’s more fairy tale telling believers what they want to hear while collecting a fat paycheck for doing so. Opportunity equality is and has always been a foundation stone of the democratic social contract, of a free and equitable society.

When 1% of the population controls the economy, opportunity as a belief in the social contract disappears. Further, when the 1% works tirelessly at social control to limit voting rights, to undermine and destroy public education, limit access to social welfare such as food stamps and health care the slippery slope inevitably becomes increasingly steep and ever more slippery. There comes a moment, sooner or later, when people believe they have no stake in the society, no future, no faith, no loyalty, and no reason to maintain it.

The President has called inequality the “defining issue of our time” and indeed it is even if I’m not certain it was more than a good sound bite. The problem is, however, that speachifying without delivery engenders cynicism and cynicism is the most corrosive of all social dynamics. To those who are blind to this verity there will, sooner or later, come a reckoning. Increased police power and presence may forestall the inevitable but it will not, in the end, prevent it. Members of the police and military are, after all is said and done, part of the 99% as are the increasingly large numbers of people with guns.

As has been the case throughout the history of human civilization this same drama has played out time and again. Just like the US, Rome made war all over its known world extending its empire beyond its capacity to sustain its own civil society. Ultimately the Romans failed as did many civilizations before and after them. Why is this such a difficult lesson to learn? Is it hubris or stupidity? Or both? There are no magical valleys in which to hide in real life. As a wise person once cautioned, be careful what you wish for – you may get it. If seekers want to read something lengthy let me suggest Toynbee’s, A Study of History; when they get to the end they’ll actually know something, something of value with which to calibrate their moral compass.

“… and they all went to the beach”

As you may recall, the beach was where everyone went in Melina Mercouri’s, Ilya’s telling of Greek tragedy in the film “Never on Sunday”. In Ilya’s versions of Media and Oedipus, no one suffered they merely “went to the beach”. In the minds of some Americans no one is suffering, no one is involuntarily unemployed, no one is without adequate health care, and if you do have difficulties it’s your own fault and your’s to solve. There are those who, in some kind of fevered Tea Party fueled delirium, see Reaganesque “welfare queens” lolling about watching TV, driving Cadillacs; or in Mike Huckabee’s lascivious fantasy, women exercising their libidos at public expense. Apparently poor people in general are just having too much fun living off the rest of society. The view from the beach, a mirage, a delusion? In reality it’s everyone for themselves.

Unemployment Compensation barely puts food on the table for a family of any size but in the distorted imagination of some politicians relief in the form of food stamps is living high on the hog and leads to permanent dependency on government hand-outs. One has to wonder what people like Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert and their colleagues see as the beneficial outcome of policies leaving 1.6 million people who used to have jobs until they were laid off left without help. Do begging bowls dance like lemon drops in their dreams? Do they relish seeing children in rags and people in soup lines?  Do they believe publicly supported charities and food banks can cover the loss? What is the future these guys so dearly covet? Where are the jobs the welfare addicted are supposed to be avoiding? Right now there are 3 people looking for work for every job open. Jobs have been and are being exported overseas to places where wages are low and workplace safety is nonexistent. Should all employers follow the lead of WalMart or McDonalds and provide advice on how to apply for welfare?

What are people like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin thinking when they characterize raising the minimum wage a “misguided political stunt” and “political grandstanding”? How does arguing against raising the minimum wage improve life for working Americans? Right now 85% of those earning minimum wage are 20 years of age and over, 26% are parents, 49% work full-time and there are 3 job seekers for every job available. Congressman Paul Ryan, at odds with the head of his church, apparently believes “Atlas Shrugged” is the bible and Ayn Rand a more reliable moral beacon than Pope Francis. On evidence it seems elected politicians have become storm commandos of class warfare leading the assault on our social contract being rewarded for their efforts by the multitude of “Institutes”, “Foundations”, and PACs underwritten by sociopathic billionaires. We are seeing the death throes of ethical behavior and public service by politicians being replaced by pandering and self-promotion.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do and they have been doing so for millennia and much for the same reasons. When societies become excessively extractive and economically exclusive, they have, across history, failed. When the arc of greed exceeded the arc of inclusiveness a downhill slide became irreversible. No matter how repressive, attempts at control ultimately failed. Restricting or denying voting rights for example will not protect the 85 people who have more wealth than half of the world’s population. It will not insulate them from the inevitable repercussions even if they generously “donate” to police departments as in New York City during the Occupy demonstrations. And this is why I find myself wondering:  What about all those guns people are encouraged to own and carry? What would happen if people, perceiving themselves as having nothing left to lose, decide to act out their frustrations and anger? When the constraints of shared community and mutual regard are shed I’ll suggest that we won’t be on our way to a beach party.

Larger Questions

Americans would do well to recall a caution from the great philosopher of democracy, Aristotle, that it is much easier to establish a Democracy than it is to preserve it. We are presently at a crossroads in our life as a democratic society, as a civilization, as a future. Our social contract, in place essentially since the Great Depression, is under attack by an over-reaching security apparatus, the very wealthy, politicians, and right-wing television networks. The plutocrats, as plutocrats are wont to do, act in service to their own wealth. Plutocrats serve themselves, politicians serve the plutocrats, and we, the American public, serve them all. The public in all of its disarray and confusion is managed and manipulated into smaller and smaller competing factions.

Separating people from a sense of community and identity with each other breaks the bonds of a civil society. It is clearly a barbaric and classic “divide and conquer” strategy for taking down a polity. This was a vision promoted by Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971, Powell Memo, a game plan commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Democratic social ideals are clearly under attack.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do. They have done so since the dawn of civilization and for much the same reasons. Recall, for instance, the Romans, Mayans, and Chacoans — large, complex societies, in business for hundreds of years. Gone! Disappeared. Judging from the torrents of political writing these days it is reasonable  to ask why so many writers and thinkers sense an impending collapse. To more than a few thoughtful observers the collapse of American society is an open question. As the collapse phenomenon has been historically frequent and persistent, calling out the concern contemporaneously isn’t exactly “Henny-Penny” panic. Is the sky falling now? Maybe – maybe not, but then, “See it – Say it” seems an appropriate and thoughtful response.

When 97% of a country’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population it is not a “rich” society as we are often told the US is. That is propaganda. And when the 1% isn’t satisfied with 97% of the wealth but actively engage in acquiring more the problem is even worse, it is no longer merely a matter of perception. It isn’t just that the 1% has so much of the wealth — it’s what they are doing with their wealth that is dangerous. Greed has never been recognized as conducive to a healthy social contract. It doesn’t matter if greed is for material wealth, public attention, notoriety, or power, it hoards the goods of a society away from the commons to a few.

While greed was’t invented last week it certainly seems to exist on an outlandish scale these days in a dangerous game of extractive overreach. Unless greed is a virtue, and it certainly is not, Capitalism has no recognizable moral order and I challenge any Nobel laureate economist to refute that. Capitalism and Democracy are not interchangeable terms. Something else is needed – populism perhaps?

Social corrosion is more than joblessness although that is significant enough. The taxonomy of greed extends to voting rights, health care, unemployment benefits, and public education to mention a few. An even more egregious example was the bailout in billions of dollars of the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008 and who, after causing financial ruin for millions, walked away richer than they were previously. Not one of the villains has been charged with a crime. If anything the miscreants have been lionized.

Meanwhile, on Main Street millions of Americans cannot find jobs to support themselves much less families. Many have dropped out of the workforce and out of the statistical reckoning of employment thus distorting unemployment statistics. Congressmen have added further injury by terminating extended unemployment benefits.

A larger question, I propose, is what became of the millions of jobs that have disappeared? The good paying jobs are not coming back because they have gone overseas. Unless Americans are willing to work for poverty wages such as those paid by McDonalds and WalMart or for what people in the Bangladesh sweat shops are paid there is no work. In another bit of irony, the government subsidizes McDonalds and WalMart providing corporate welfare in the form of food stamps and so forth for their underpaid employees.

So  here is a bottom line question: What kind of country do people like the Kochs, Steve Forbes, the Walton family, and others like them and their mouthpieces, Fox television commentators, and politicians like Ryan, Cantor, Boehner, and McConnell want to see? Is their fantasy something out of the 1930s with soup kitchens and families lined up for a hot meal?  Would they be amused perhaps to watch people of the lower classes fighting amongst themselves in some version of Hunger Games? There is little doubt we are at a defining moment in the history of this country, this society, and the egalitarian political philosophy it was founded on. Can it be preserved? I quote Alasdair MacIntyre: “ … the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Crossroads – Questions Without Answers

Here are some questions that have been plaguing me for months: Why are people like the Koch boys and their wholly owned politicians on such a rampage to destroy the American social contract? What’s in it for them? After all, they and their friends have or control nearly all of the money and resources. And when they have it all then what? What is the point or purpose of such behavior? Does it even have a point or purpose? Is it a sickness? A mental disturbance? Why would anyone want to deprive other people of food and sustenance when they, themselves, have more than they need? What sort of gratification comes from denying health care to those who need it but can’t pay? As we follow this line of questioning we arrive at this:  Do we actually have core “American Values”? Have we ever?

What is even more disturbing is that the majority of those attacking the social contract are self-defined Christians. It is my understanding Christian teachings require compassion and identification with others. This is the so-called “Golden Rule” that one should treat others as one would want others to treat them. This “Rule” exists across history in nearly every religion around the world. So what kind of belief systems allow some people to act with complete disregard for others? Is it depravity? It certainly isn’t civilized. A suit and tie don’t confer civilized status – only behavior does that. The Pope, speaking out against the patent absence of moral standards that has created the current scenario was criticized by a right-wing radio show host who claimed the Pope to be a Communist. When the Pope comments about redistribution of wealth he is speaking as a moral being not as a politician.

If we cannot ask moral equations of ourselves or of our society without being labeled what does that say about us? Moral questions have been replaced by power, profit, and gain. It does’t seem to matter whether or not environmental safety questions are settled before fracking for oil and transporting it across oceans, prairies, or tundra. Safety is only a matter of whether or not litigation can be successfully defended against by your phalanx of lawyers and PR firms. This strategy is deemed cheaper than moral considerations of environmental, social, and human damages.

People lose their savings or lose their homes when the economy and markets tank. The government bails out bankers, “too big to fail”, who gambled away their depositors’ money with taxpayer money to the tune of billions of dollars. This is the taxonomy of greed in a society that once represented a shining shore of exceptionalism. Moral questions will not be asked here. Profit and loss take precedence over morality. This is what we have become.

A recent example of displacement of moral thought by legalism is one Barry Engle, a lawyer involved with off-shore trusts for people stashing their wealth, ill-gotten or otherwise, out of reach of the tax man. Engle made the following statement: “Lawyers can debate the morality of these trusts… My first duty is to my clients and my clients have a need.” Apparently “morality” is not Mr. Engle’s brief. (“Paradise of Untouchable Assets” Leslie Wayne, NYT 12/15/13) So, what is it that lawyers do if their “first duty” is to their clients and not to Justice? As I understand it, Justice serves the whole of society by protecting individuals from injustice. That Truth and Justice are held to be blind to social status is why Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded and why lawyers supposedly have a sworn responsibility to serve that ideal.

If Justice has been undermined so too has religion been stripped of moral value. Case in point: Paul Ryan, the Republican, Alter Boy, Congressman who is working relentlessly to dismantle social safety nets, is a Catholic. My question is, to what extent has Ryan been informed by his religious beliefs? I don’t see a connection between the teachings of the Catholic prophet and Ryan’s behavior as a member of society. So far as I know, the prophet Jesus is nowhere depicted as a sociopath.

We will never have a just society without a sense of shared community. As Alasdair McIntyre put it: “In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s good for man, there can no longer be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.” The United States seems to no longer qualify as having a shared conception of what is good.

Using their offices as instruments in service to the wealthy politicians are creating  a destructive social fractiousness. We have a society of rent-seekers – asking, “what’s in in for me?”.  It’s all about price not value. Using power to selfish ends isn’t confined to politics it operates within religious entities, trade unions, businesses, police departments – organizations led by individuals with insatiable appetites for wealth, fame, and power. Is this our new measure of life?

As the world turns there are so many questions and few and fewer answers. Volver … volver….

Crossroads: We Dare Not Call Its Name

It’s time to drag a beast out of it’s cave—it’s time for a national dialog about the most vicious and most pernicious of the so-called Animal Spirits, the one that has for millennia sunk into oblivion every society and civilization afflicted by it. The expression, “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” has been around for a long time to define the attitudes and demeanor of certain people. When these people buy secondnd base and then first it becomes their ballgame, they make the rules, and they always win. This analogy well represents what is happening in the US and in the world today. Even the pope has taken notice and has expressed dismay over what he calls “unfettered capitalism.” A bad case of pleonexia, the ruthless and arrogant assumption that others exist for one’s own benefit, with complete disregard for any considerations of common humanity. Doesn’t sound good, does it?

 Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do and have from the dawn of history. The story of civilization is littered with failed states.  When societies become excessively extractive in nature— when wealth has been redistributed unequally between the many and the few, collapse has inevitably followed. This is the story of extractive overreach.

In their book, “Animal Spirits”, Nobel Prize winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller explain the dynamics which drive the world of economics from pillar to post but never name the “beast.” I will venture to say that it wasn’t because they don’t know the beast, rather that it must not be spoken of. Lying at a comfortable remove from the name we dare not say, “Animal Spirits” is their euphemism of choice. (Alan Greenspan gave us “irrational exuberance.”)

Denial has become a style—don’t actually call things what they are but find ways to sanitize or neutralize them. Orwell called this “newspeak.” There are very good reasons for this: if we called some things what they really are, the social consequences would be dire. For example, Rebecca M. Blank, a first-rank candidate to serve on the Obama Council of Economic Advisors, was rejected for having said several years earlier, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.” For having used the term “redistribution,” Ms Blank was not appointed.

It’s going to be a rough ride for this country as we establish just what kind of society we are becoming, what we are being driven to, against what we want to be. From Wisconsin to Texas, from one coast to the other, legislation to restrict voting rights, health care, even a simple resolution in Wisconsin to honor the children and teachers who were shot to death at Sandy Hook, could not pass the partisan legislature. Heartless, yes, and heartlessness of the sort that beggars the imagination—callow heartlessness that serves no purpose other than to attend a depraved, mean-spirited social agenda. The intellectual and moral polarization this represents is stark. Sadly we haven’t had leadership in recent years that measures up to the task at hand, to staunch the bleeding of social commitment, to truthfully explain to the country what is happening and why. Neoliberals are no more prone to truthfulness than Neoconservatives, and the rest of us are stuck in the middle.

It is, at times, impossible to grasp the many fronts in the assault on the American social contract. For example, the pawns and agents of the Animal Spirits are attacking society’s commitment to educate children. Schools are but one pawn in the game; there are many others: middle-class Americans who are in the process of becoming lower-class Americans are fair game. Like wolves, the Animal Spirits are circling with the scent of money in their snouts. Republican/Tea Party loyalists are howling about health care, unemployment, veterans’ health care, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. Our Neoliberal president seems willing to throw those to the curb to achieve his “Grand Bargain.” The beast wants to tear down this edifice of civilized regard for others that has been built over the years to provide aid and comfort, food and medical care for the part of society that isn’t wealthy and never will be. The beast wants to maintain low wages so low that employers like Walmart will, out of the goodness of their hearts, sponsor food drives for their underpaid employees who can’t afford groceries enough to feed their families. The American middle class is fast becoming what an 18th-century Dutch economist called “the laborious poor.”

The Animal Spirits rise again and again. They are indefatigable. Economists offer euphemisms and technical terms because it is safer to frame the question as an economic abstraction when, actually, it is concretely moral. Greed is what we are talking about here. Greed has always been a moral question.

When the world reaches a point where the pope feels compelled to speak out about greed it is certain we have turned a significant corner in the human condition and the civil society. If we never call things what they are we will never deal with them. The arc of greed throughout history has only ever led to the collapse of every society so afflicted. Let’s call it what it is—pure, simple, old-fashioned, down-and-dirty greed. It should have been a four-letter word.

December 6, 2013


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