Posts Tagged 'Civil Society'

It’s About Groceries

It seems at times that the world is what it must be like for a fly climbing a window pane. You can see it all out there but you can’t get to it. The window is transparent but, is what you are seeing the truth? How could you know? How could you be sure? Reality is itself a construct which you accept or not at your own peril. We suffer an opaque political system working overtime, as it does, to corrupt itself at every turn while trying to convince us it isn’t. The sensational hour by hour revelations about or for each candidate become a yawn for some people or raw meat thrown to a madding crowd for others. The final political question eventually devolves to how many times we must hold our collective noses and vote for a lesser evil before the political system crumbles into the darkness of chaos?

Required reading for one of the classes I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Radical School Reform, was Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals”. It was published the same year I started teaching, 1972. I still keep the book on my desk and pick it up from time-to-time scanning through for a random jewel, perhaps a random memory. My favorite passage has always been the concluding paragraph. “The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world we will see when we believe it.”

It is indeed about believing. We live in a complex world believing in, among other things, truth, equality, other people to fear, and something called “fairness”, and a world in which people are asked to believe in an economic system that favors a few at the disadvantage of many. As with religious dogma our economic belief system, Capitalism, may not be challenged in spite of clear evidence that it is destroying social contracts and the environment globally. If you doubt this you haven’t been paying attention to the exodus of American business to other countries, places where there are little or no health and safety regulations and pay scales that are a fraction of those in the US.. In many of those offshore countries workers earn less in a day than what Americans doing the same work earned in an hour. The irony, of course, is that those goods now being made abroad are brought to the US for Americans to “consume”. At the same time that the general public is being impoverished, infrastructure is crumbling across the country to pay for the perpetual and profitable war machine. It is reasonable, I believe, to ask what our values are as a nation when people are without medical care, and children without sufficient daily meals or a proper education? Are our voices not heard at the seats of power or are our voices simply inconsequential?

Capitalism, a zero sum enterprise that ultimately has only one winner has become both a belief system and an economic system. In the words of S.D. King in, When The Money Runs Out, “In reality, the financial system prices beliefs – and beliefs – not ultimate truth.” The economic pie is just one size and as someone else’s slice gets bigger someone else’s inevitably becomes smaller. In the end, regardless of Calvin Coolidge’s belief that “The business of the American people is business”, what really makes for a healthy equitable society is truth and the truth is about groceries not overseas bank accounts. It’s supermarket shoppers trying to put a meal on the table every day who are the real economy and who make the economy function; that’s what keeps a civil society alive and healthy.

Crossroads Series – Knitting At Starbucks

 Crossroads Series – Knitting At Starbucks

If you wanted to destroy a modern civil society where would you start? With education perhaps? Or the health and welfare of the general public? Or the civil courts where well paid insurance company lawyers beat back attempts to hold culpable parties responsible? How about ubiquitous universal surveillance of your activities, phone calls, and internet browsing? The economy would also be a good choice. Fostering and controlling divisive public narrative around money would be particularly effective. In fact, this last would be a particularly easy option if you controlled “news” outlets and teams of commentators who would be willing to distort events according to a prescribed political agenda. Conflict between those who have a lot and want more, those who have just enough to get by and are scared to death they’ll get sick or lose their jobs, and the have nots with nothing much left to lose – a real battlefield. Controlling the public narrative is especially effective and important because so many people don’t look beyond what they see and hear in the media or the circumstances of their own lives and they don’t look beyond information that confirms their beliefs or feeds their fears.

Because they are dangerous critical thinking skills are not cultivated or encouraged in the education system. One result of this lack is a widely divided public, a collection of people and groups with conflicting beliefs whose prejudices and fears can easily be played off against one another. What we end up with is not a nation so much as a large land-mass populated by people with competing values and beliefs on a collision course — no winners in this game of “chicken” except those who stand to profit from it and even they must consider the consequences.

Control the narrative and you can control what people believe. This ages old strategy to divide and conquer is facilitated by a global around the clock news cycle controlled by billionaires with an agenda and with loyal, well paid, cadres of announcers, panelists, and pundits. The narrative is defined in simplistic terms to structure what the general public believes about other people, other countries, events, people of differing political persuasions, poor people, and “foreigners”. While today’s list is longer and up to date the methods of forming beliefs have been uniform forever. Keep repeating the same lies and distortions and sooner or later you will have infected belief systems. Within the boundaries of a nation, or any organization for that matter, the more you divide the more you control. By definition this strategy leads to a population with irreconcilable values  and no longer organized around shared beliefs – one nation under nothing really except perhaps control.

Consider the current politicization of public education aimed at destroying it and replacing public schools with for-profit schools. This is a national movement being carried out by phony political “foundations”. State governors are raking in campaign contributions from billionaires drooling at the prospect of more profit and a population well prepared to not question authority.

Why destroy public education? Children must be educated to be fully functioning members of society, a process that is thousands of years old. And, how does this happen Mr. Joel Klein, Michele Rhee, Arne Duncan and his hoops buddy when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a circumscribed and contrived personal world? Well, it won’t happen because “public” means all of us including children, working and learning as a community, not as self-enclosed, hermetic, self-absorbed centers of private experience. Public is the antithesis of self-centeredness. Public means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever we can at whatever cost to the community oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, not about profit, but about civility, about community, about Democracy.

Should we be teaching children to become accustomed to being constantly surveilled – a new form of life skill? Would it be best if growing up included understanding that the government is monitoring you and your not so private anymore life? Read any of Chris Hedges essays or better, Heidi Boghosian’s “Spying on Democracy”, it could be the text book. Protecting your vastly diminished life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness under the government microscope, sanctioned by Congress and our neoliberal President will be the new curriculum. It’s down the rabbit hole of paranoia as neighbors spy on neighbors as in the Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War years except far more efficient and comprehensive. Knitting at Starbucks could become a crime.

True story:

A guy is sitting in a Florida Starbucks having a tall coffee and knitting. He looks up and there are three burly cops looking down at him.  A perfect Inspector Clouseau moment. “Ahem …. What is that you’re doing?”, they ask. “Knitting, officer.” This is the new reality in paranoid America. Get used to it.

Your little cell phone provides your coordinates, your list of friends, your interests, who you call, and who calls you. All your information is being pored over by “analysts” and computers looking for clues in the “metadata”. But, not to worry, you won’t have to be looking over your shoulder for terrorists just for federal agents and they are, of course, on your side. If you have questions direct them to the General in charge of the NSA. He has the capacity to store in the neighborhood of 12 exabytes of data about his fellow Americans and you’re in there, Pal. It’s a “Brave New World”, folks. Knit one, purl two.


Civil Society at a Crossroads—Truth and Justice

 I have always believed truth to be the basis of justice, for how can you have justice without truth? So far so good perhaps, but then the questions inevitably arise—which truth, whose truth? There are at least 11 theories of truth, plus a few including mathematical truth. Just for the sake of illustrating the difficulty of defining truth, the major theories are: Correspondence, Coherence, Constructivist, Consensus, Pragmatic or Minimalist, Deflationary, Performative, Redundancy, Disquotational, Pluralist and Semantic. There are others as well, but these are the biggies. You could spend a lot of time working your way through these ideas and still, in my opinion, not come up with a better everyday working definition than “conforming to reality.” As Aquinas said: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to reality.”  This is the definition I would suppose and hope parents teach their children.

I’ve put the following question to lawyers: “Is it winning or justice you seek in court?” So far I haven’t received a take-away answer. This leads me to believe we are dealing with a conundrum, a question for which I had naively expected there would be a ready or, at the least, facile answer. After all lawyers are professionals who appear before judges and juries to represent … what? Are lawyers merely hired guns who do or say whatever it takes to win their case? If so, what does this say about the very idea of justice? How does the society arrive at justice if everyone is telling a truth designed to serve their own purposes? How can a society believe in justice when there is no truth serving justice? From the most primitive to the most sophisticated societies, social contracts are underwritten by truth and justice. These are the foundation stones of the social contract. Consequently, when the contest is between winning and justice, the ultimate victim is the social contract.

In addition to the many truths posited, philosophers also argue there are many realities. Obviously, this makes getting to an absolute truth even more of a crap-shoot. If that doesn’t make for a shaky social contract what does? We have my truth, your truth, the Supreme Court’s truth, a billionaire’s truth, a plaintiff’s truth, a defendant’s truth, and of course, an insurance company’s lawyer’s truth. Whoa! “Did you throw a stone through the neighbor’s window?” Yes or No? That’s easy, isn’t it? When a man spends 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, was the prosecutor seeking justice or a conviction? Of course if truth is as fungible as indicated by the lack of one definitive statement of it, that would, I believe, indicate there can be no absolute justice either, could there? So, it would seem then that the multiplicity of these realities gives rise to many possibilities and a great many of them troubling.

If there is no absolute truth and thus no absolute justice, what do we mean when we talk about a just society, a just social contract? What if justice is merely an illusion promoted for purposes of one form of social control or another? What happens when people wake up to the charade? How do they manage? In Central Europe, when the illusion of Communism’s truths dissolved, so too did the social contract, and it is now wearing thin in China. Religion and democracy have the same problem as politics in matching promise to actuality. Consensual truth has led to all manner of belief systems, from religious to social, but when experience didn’t add up to the promise, consensus had a limited life span, as did the social contract. When life as it is lived doesn’t add up to the promise, change is inevitable.

It is said all men are created equal before the law. If you take that statement at face value then you must also believe in the Easter bunny. We all know that in life, as it is lived, not all people are treated equally before the law, but we choose to believe otherwise—we live with the contradiction, indeed we need to live with it. The statement is patently and demonstrably not true but is repeated mantra-like as though it were, and why is that? One reason is that as a society we need it to believe it true—we need to believe it is true because if it isn’t true the believed social contract is on shaky ground.

All societies are built on a foundation of “truths” and beliefs, many of which are illusory. Equal justice is, as we have seen, questionable, so too are equality of economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and others as well. Each illusion serves a particular purpose and polity. Each has its own dynamic, and each needs to be publicly examined and discussed. This I believe; while philosophers chew on these questions the rest of us need workaday answers, otherwise the social contract cannot otherwise function. Illusory or not, ultimately the social contract becomes no longer viable—destroyed by those sworn to uphold it, and those who profit from it in one way or another, but in every case a betrayal of unimaginable proportions.

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