Archive for February, 2019

“Great”? What is that?

Democracy is a high maintenance political system for the people who live in it. Dictatorships are not as those in charge tell you what to do, how to do it, and when. They also tell you who your enemies are, who to like, and who to dislike. In a Democratic society the collective will informs politicians. In a dictatorship of any stripe – people are told what is good for them. The state is the authority not the will of the populace. People who buy into empty slogans such as “Make America Great Again” are desperately looking for an authority in a complex and confusing world. They are desperate for simple answers and decisive action. Populist personalities offer them just that just the Hitlers and Mussolinis of history. The multitudinous contradictions and competing social demands of modern society are frustrating and confusing and the volkish are desperate for to feed what one writer calls their “mobilizing passions”. They crave the simplicity of a demagogue. Many people are chanting MAGA without asking or knowing what it means – it sounds good.  Ask them:

  What do you mean by GREAT?

When did America stop being great? 

What would it take to make America “Great” again?.

How will we know when it is “Great” again? 

The simplistic MAGA meme is nothing if not a sinister manipulation playing to ignorance, resentment, and anger, it has repeated itself under many names and many times in history – Communism, Fascism,  Oligarchy, Neoliberalism, Populism, and “Whateverism”. These seem never to go out of style, and they are on a roll again. All it takes to start this ball rolling is someone willing to play to the lowest common denominator with simple assurances of better times, what one writer calls the “mobilizing passions”, a better economy, and the necessary De Rigueur enemy. And, consider for just for a moment the juicy contradiction of a billionaire playing populist.Oh, and don’t forget the ball caps and t-shirts being sold to the true believers who never question who is making a profit on the sales.

 Cooperation and community are dangerous to demagogues because they unite people and consolidate them around their collective power. The idea of winner take all competition has been so inculcated and baked into the American psyche and thus into public education from kindergarten onwards that it makes social collectivity difficult. Competition keeps people at each others’ throats, It is the antithesis of cooperation. One of the most destructive practices in public education is competition and I am not speaking of sports activities here. Why is this destructive? Because social competition in formative years ultimately undermines a sense of community, sharing, and cooperation. In competitive educational systems kids learn how to be “good” losers, to accept not being first or best exactly as the economic system categorizes their parents. If a society is to succeed as a community, however, cooperation must be a fundamental tenet of how children are socialized. “Everyone’s a winner!”

When I was teaching I used to take my classes once a semester to the University gym for the following exercise. I called it the Participatory Democracy Exercise, a very simple dynamic demonstration of how competition thwarts a cooperative social contract. It was very easy and here is how it worked: We played a basketball game and the only rule aside from the normal ones was, if you get a basket the other side gets the points. The participants were immobilized and frustrated. Talk about cognitive dissonance! After everyone had a turn at this we spent the rest of class time talking about the affect and effect of being winners and losers not because of skill or effort but because of rules they did not themselves make. Today, if I were again doing this exercise I would point the discussion towards the MAGA meme and ask how that relates to questions of community and cooperation within a fully functioning society. 

By definition, public education is a function of the Commons in which children are prepared for life in society as it is lived or. perhaps ideally, for a better society. Democracy is, at bottom, a collective political concept, an all for one and one for all social contract. Never forget, “With Liberty and Justice for all.”? We have all made that pledge not once but many times over the course of our lives from childhood onwards, our pledge to social, political, economic, and educational justice. 

Public education, just like the right and duty to vote, is a vital and fundamental responsibility for members of a democratic society. Solid and responsible primary and secondary education isn’t about job training – it’s about teaching children to become responsible citizens who readily and competently participate in a Democratic society. It is about teaching, not what to think, but how to think and, most importantly, how to learn. Those qualities are anathema to demagogues and that is why the appointment of someone like Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is profoundly insulting. The destruction of public education will be the inevitable destruction of our democratic society.

Certainty and the Death of Democracy

Certainty and the Death of DemocracyJohn Dewey’s 1929 classic, “The Quest for Certainty”, foretells sorrow unto today. As Dewey put it, “the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief.” An underlying hunger exists for certainty in an uncertain world, for security in insecure times. Politicians play on fear and promise security to their insecure audiences, it’s the “chicken in every pot” meme in one form or another. Little argument can be made against the proposition that in our times as in the past the greatest sources of insecurity are economic uncertainty followed by fear of invading foreigners. In a wobbling economy that promises more than it delivers, racial tensions, and economic insecurity are the go-to populist motivators. 
The news is contradictory – people are out of work, jobs have been shipped overseas but, hey, we are also told the economy is thriving and corporate profit has never been greater. Uncertainty and its handmaiden confusion, define the moment. The hollow promises made by politicians of better times just ahead are appealing. And when such promises are publicly asserted in rousing speeches the quest for certainty can and often does overcome common sense. This is how the pernicious effects of cognitive dissonance are exploited. In an economy built on credit, on personal debt for homes, automobiles, recreational vehicles, and motor boats, secured by jobs in manufacturing that are being shipped abroad, angst reigns. You could be next.
Certainty is the mother’s milk promised by nearly all politicians. What else do they have to offer and what more do people crave? Does the message resonate with the audience? If it does the message will be calculated, refined, and repeated. This is how politicians calculate their “pitch”. If people are out of work or afraid of losing their jobs the pitch must, if you want their votes, be employment certainty and include demonizing immigrants who are taking their jobs for less pay. No blame will be assigned to the employers who hire the immigrants nor to those moving their factories to low-wage countries. 
When political rhetoric centers on instilling or exploiting feelings of victimhood and loss of self-worth, we are on a well-worn path that has in the past led to fascism. This is how it went down in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and many other countries.  When democracy has failed politically and economically the path ahead has been trod before. Those who march and chant and scapegoat minorities and immigrants distract themselves. 
When an economic system is conflated with democracy we are plying dangerous waters. Uncertainty and fear have always been the nucleus of political implosion. Think about this: The Economist recently reported on a 2016 survey that showed more than half of young Americans no longer support capitalism, the country’s foundational economic and political belief system. It confirms Juan J Linz’s observation in “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes” that, “Legitimacy is granted or withdrawn by each member of the society day in and day out.”
And when this divisive current administration finally concludes, and it will, we, like Dante, will say, “Thence we came forth to behold the stars.


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