Posts Tagged 'Brooks Adams'

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?

Midnight in the Land of Fear and Greed

In his 1896, “The Law Of Civilization And Decay,” Brooks Adams states: “Thought is one of the manifestations of human energy, and among the earlier and simpler phases of thought, two stand conspicuous – Fear and Greed. Fear, which, by stimulating the imagination, creates a belief in an invisible world, and ultimately develops a priesthood: and Greed which dissipates energy in war and trade.”  I wonder what Adams’ take would have been on today’s United States, driven by both fear and greed.

Scores of Americans are willing, out of Fear, to surrender freedom for the illusion of safety. Greed manifests in the relentless pursuit of profit by corporations, bankers and individuals through tax-evasion strategies and manipulation enabled by legislators gifted with PAC “donations.” The population dominating the economy promotes deregulation and tax relief for themselves, claiming “trickle-down” economics, which Kenneth Galbraith once characterized as allowing a horse to gorge on oats such that something will go through for the sparrows.

Corporations like Apple Computer utilize cleverly rationalized off-shore tax dodges, squirreling millions out of reach of the American tax system, thus withdrawing the energy represented by that money from the very society from which they derive their profits. The end result of this behavior is that the burden of taxes falls on an ever-diminished middle-class struggling to keep its head above water. Unless people believe in the fairness of the social contract as they live it on a daily basis it will be undermined.

The “priesthood” of the CIA, NSA, FBI, FISA, and IRS cite an “invisible world” they can’t tell us about but which they are a part of. Sounds like a religion, doesn’t it? Tapping your phones, reading, recording and storing your private e-mails and internet searches, photographing your mail, recording your book purchases, making “unintentional mistakes,” and storing all of this indefinitely without your knowledge or your permission, they are making you “safe” in the land of the free and the home of the brave. According to the Washington Post, “The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy.” We have descended into the same domestic spying we condemn elsewhere.

From the moment the first buckled shoe set foot on this continent, the United States has been a racist, classist, religiously bigoted  country dominated by business interests. Could it ever be different? This is a Darwinian world, and so long as there is a “getting ahead” or “having more” there will be people stepping on others to get their “more.” For their part, the polity would rather blame others – however characterized by disability, poverty, skin color, birthplace, intellect, or any quality that distinguishes them as “other” – instead of their own unwillingness to shoulder responsibility for social and economic equality, and they are encouraged in this behavior by the insatiable 1% and their puppet politicians.

What will our country look like if the sociopaths succeed? Will we be back to soup kitchens? People languishing in the streets and gutters? Will our world resemble the Middle Ages? Will there be rampant disease and lack of sufficient food, cleanliness, and health care? Is this the vision the oligarchs financing the assaults on social services, schools, and society in general have in mind?

Because, in Ronald Wright’s words, “… all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures there can never be enough to go around,” all civilizations throughout history have ascended and declined, evolved and devolved through a process of similar dynamics. This is not a new idea. Polybius, a 2nd-century BC Greek historian, noted the cycle of states as being growth, maturity and decay. This “rule” applied to sophisticated and primitive societies alike, especially those that invested heavily in their militaries and engaged in endless warfare, the Roman Empire being a good example.

The list of failed societies is long and extends to the furthest reaches of human history, and destructive energies of Fear and Greed drove those ancient societies to their collapse. They were, to paraphrase Shelley, the greatest nations that ever were. Beyond the boast, their greatness, subject to the resources of their commons, ultimately served them no further purpose; the wages of hubris.

Civilization is a recent development, something on the order of a mere six thousand years or so, consequently civilization remains, by any measure, an experiment. As with all experiments, there are no right or wrong answers—only results. The United States’ experiment is clearly at a crossroads in its history, the outcome of which is uncertain only to the extent of our collective ability to conquer fear and greed, to imagine, create, and maintain a just society. No small task.

 

Enough Already!

In physical science the term “saturated” means a system cannot dissolve more of what is being added the inevitable result being a falling out of or refusal to enter solution. I don’t know about you but I am nearly saturated by the daily tide of one miserable report after another chronicling the unrelenting assault on the American social contract. It has become nearly impossible to keep abreast of and assimilate the outrages. From one end of the country to the other, from border to border, conservative and neo-conservative led legislatures, national, state, county, and municipal, millionaires and billionaires all seem hell bent on turning this country into some sort of religious, socially retarded, antediluvian police state with voting restricted to churchgoing Christian white people who always have enough to eat. It’s a revolution of sorts orchestrated by wealthy sociopaths and their corrupt politician lackeys. How can this not lead to what Barbara Tuchmann called a “dementia of despair”?

It’s as though a plague of locusts has descended on the country and I wonder if perhaps we have somehow brought this on ourselves. Have we have sinned like Sodom and Gomorrah such that we must now pay suffering these sociopaths?   Companies like Monsanto are determined to shove genetically modified foods down everyone’s gullet. As fracking contaminates water tables Nestle is spreading their gospel that no one is entitled to free clean water. And a cast of characters from the Koch boys to Rupert Murdoch are salivating for privatized public education buying governors and, in return, having their operatives placed  in state government education offices.

Orson Welles once said that he had all the “equipment necessary to be a politician. Total shamelessness.” Representative Louie Gohmert a Texas Republican compares the civil rights of minorities to the rights of “ the snail darter, various lizards, the lesser prairie chicken, …. and so many other insects, …”. Darrel Issah declares that President Obama “has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern time.”. And where else but on the Rush Limbaugh show? Mitch McConnell is deliberately, by his own admission, destroying the civil legislative process out of spite. And it isn’t just shameless  politicians stuffing their PACs with corporate money — that sort of dirty business has been going on long before it was institutionalized by Tammany Hall — it’s that it has since become expected, it has become a yawn. Corruption has become the norm — business as usual.

Beyond the corruption of individual politicians the country is now waking up to the reality that everyone is being spied on by our own government. I’m old enough to remember how we demonized the Soviet Union for exactly the same behavior, how their domestic spying was held up to inspire our domestic loyalty. We couldn’t let them to win the Cold War because then we would be living in  a surveillance state, a police state. We have become what we were once told we were defending ourselves against. The NSA is collecting your phone calls, your email, your online searches — your postal mail is photographed by the US Post Office, even your bookstore purchases are collected. And that information will be stored indefinitely. In fact they hold so much information about us that, at our expense, they are building a $1.7 billion facility in Utah to hold it all. Good Morning America. Wake up. You live in a surveillance state.

You are also living in a police state. Secret courts accountable to no one oversee the spying and the subjects, people like you and me, have no recourse. Watch footage of the policing of the Occupy Movement across the country. Helmeted cops wearing body armor in armored vehicles looking like an army of Darth Vader’s storm troopers, tear gas quickly deployed just as in the Vietnam War protests but more efficiently and thoroughly. Of course the protestors are also photographed for later identification. Do you remember Jamie Dimon, the JP Morgan Chase CEO, handing out a $4.6 million “donation” (Was it a bonus  perhaps?) to the New York Police Department during the 2012 Occupy demonstrations? Or how about millionaire John Boehner’s charming and disingenuous assertion that populist movements like Occupy are creating class-warfare in America. There’s some chutzpa for you. Good Morning, America. Are you yawning?

The American belief system and its social contract have been attacked, compromised, and damaged in significant ways and not by external enemies. Enemies are required to provide the glue to hold ideological structures together and in the past the enemies were external. Now we are become the necessary enemy – the necessary glue. We have become the suspects and we are not in charge. Perhaps we never have been in charge, perhaps it has always been a delusion. Who can say? Who can do more than ask the question? As Alasdair McIntyre observed, “our social order is in a very literal  sense out of our, and indeed anyone’s, control. No one is or could be in charge.” I suspect the President isn’t completely in charge nor are the dysfunctional on-the-take politicians in Washington DC and across the United States. You can be sure, however, someone somewhere is pulling the strings.

As enemies provide the glue of ideological structures, belief systems are the glue of social contracts. The problem here is that in thecontradictions lies a mine field of meaninglessness, a slippery slope to pervasive nihilism that overcomes people who have given up trying to make sense of the world around them. In other words, the “dementia of despair”. There becomes less and less to believe in because less and less proves true or is even comprehensible and this leads inevitably to disbelief. With the loss of belief, the social contract built on that foundation becomes fatally undermined and finally abandoned in the final chapter of dystopia.

I close this essay with a 1954 quote from General Dwight Eisenhower, a quote the 44th president ought to meditate on: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman and they are stupid.”Amen, Brother. Enough, Already!


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