Archive for March, 2014

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.


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