Posts Tagged 'social contract'

Notes On A Foreign Country

I don’t very often publish book reviews but in this case I believe this book to be of great value to anyone trying to make sense of where our country is going.

Review – Notes On A Foreign Country

The sub-title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes On A Foreign Country” is “An American Abroad in a Post-American World” and that is the story in a nut-shell. Having worked abroad myself for several years I was eager to read what someone else had to say about the experience. What I encountered forced me to look back on my time working in Eastern Europe and I didn’t like what I saw. Ms Hansen is unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth and the clarity of her demeanor and expectations. In short, both she and I and no doubt many others, prima fascia, take American superiority in all matters for granted except perhaps cuisine.

Hansen moved herself to Turkey to experience living full-time in a foreign country following the September 11th attacks. She was then writing for the New York Times Magazine and decided to move to a Muslim populated country to better understand the culture of the Middle East, that country was Turkey. While residing in Turkey she traveled extensively to other countries in that part of the world – Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She came, by virtue of her travels and unrelenting introspection, to a better understanding of herself and the United States. What she saw clearly were the assumptions many of us make as Americans working and living abroad.

The first challenge that came to mind for this reader is the belief that the United States leads the world in technology, education, military strength, social equity, and in other respects. It came as a great revelation to Ms Hansen that others do not perceive us that way. What she learned is that the influence and reputation of this country is in decline if not bottomed out. One has only to consider the ongoing futility of our military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate that assessment. And, not only futility but the mind-boggling waste of American lives and national treasure in ventures that have no realistic purpose or definable conclusion. How, for example, can we consider ourselves superior as a society when ours is virtually the only industrialized free market country in the world that does not provide universal free health care?

Hansen’s descriptions of place and people are vivid and intelligent as are her reflections on herself as an actor in a world different from how she was raised and educated. She discovers the disillusionment with the United States of people in the places she visits. She sees how Americans are generally fully convinced of theirs and their country’s superiority as they fail to understand and respect other countries, their people, and their customs. This attitude engenders resentment and a closing down which stands in the way of meeting as equals. We are international missionaries for our life style, our mores, and our technology. We take our values to those whose own values and methodologies are presumed to be inferior to ours.

All of this brought to mind a Polish aphorism, “Koniec nie vidac!” The end is not seen, cannot be seen. We must wonder if perhaps that is the idea, the ultimate purpose, that there be no end to the pursuit of wars around the globe, they are just too profitable to end. And, as we wonder, you may rest assured that others in other countries are thinking the same thoughts.

This is a personal book well written and valuable. This is also an important book with which to disabuse yourself of U.S. Power, popularity, and influence in a world now made crazy and unstable in the “Time of Trump” who himself probably could not find a majority of the involved countries on a map.  I recommend it highly if, for no other reason, than for perspective on this country. My hat is off to Ms Hansen who now makes her home in Turkey.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY

An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Farrar, Straus  and Giroux

A Pacifier Nation and Governance by Chaos – or – How To Destroy a Social Contract.

This is the first installment of several on the American Social Contract.

Here is a perfect example of the kind of mentality we are dealing with. This is a quotation from Donald Rumsfeld justifying war in Iraq:

Donald Rumsfeld famously argued with regard to the WMD question in Iraq, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” 

How many times does it have to be said? How much more clearly can it be articulated? But, I’ll  say it once again, this centuries old accumulated wisdom …. – The greatest human problem, the most destructive and most powerful force in the human experiential universe is greed with fear running a close second!  It is fear that is most often exploited by demagogues claiming to speak for the voiceless masses expressing their fears, their anger, and without fail, their prejudices against perceived “enemies” such as all those immigrants “stealing” their good jobs. It would no doubt be sold as “America First”.  … in 1938, a New York Times reporter warned: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.” No mention will be made, of course, that those stolen good jobs were actually shipped to countries where wages are low and benefits non-existent. No discussion will ensue about how all of this belies the fact that a once believed in social contract has been dismantled and effectively destroyed. The so-called American Dream has fast become the American Nightmare.

What exactly is a Social Contract and how does a society acquire one? All societies including totalitarian states have a social contract both explicit and implicit, written and unwritten, enforced and unenforced. Social contracts cover anything and everything from attire, to diet, to religious practice, to driving on a particular side of the road. In some societies the origins of their contract provisions are lost in time having evolved without record but are manifest in the present.

The social standing of women, castes, races, ethnicities, regional inhabitants are all aspects of social contracts as they occur around the world and within nations. Some are decided by vote others by imposition and carried on by secular or religious tradition or custom. The actors assemble under a variety of banners from Marxism to neoliberalism and always with the same objectives – to limit personal freedom and to delimit individual behavior thus defining a contract.

I have been studying the Social Contract for more 30 years out of an interest that evolved from my teaching a course at Madison titled “Schools and Society”. The motivating question at that time was: Why do societies put so much effort and treasure into teaching the young from kindergarten through university and college? And now, why today, has the United States, a country that has had an enviable system of public education since its founding, why now attack public education from all quarters? I recently saw a Gallup poll that found that more than half of those surveyed were dissatisfied with public schools.

(To be continued.)

It’s A Scam

Over the past several years public education and public school teachers have become the whipping boys for everyone from presidents of the United States to governors, mayors, various political appointees such as secretaries of education, newspaper and magazine reporters, and others who share one vital characteristic: virtually none of them are professional educators with any experience or training in education. Everybody is an expert when it comes to criticizing public education and teachers. These self-ordained opinionated grandees have a bully pulpit from which to deprecate professional public school educators. Their opinions sell newspapers and magazines sowing doubt and mistrust of a public institution that has been a pillar of society since the Massachusetts legislature appropriated 400 pounds for public education in 1676.

What is going on now is a scam actually, and it’s way past time for this fraud to be called out. This is not to say that public schools couldn’t do better or that all public school teachers are great. That isn’t the point. We are, after all, dealing with children on the one hand – young human beings who come in a variety of skills and intellectual levels, and from home environments that may or may not support or value schooling. On the other hand, not all teachers are created equal, nor would any professional educator claim otherwise.

We have to concede something is afoot that doesn’t bode well for public education when the president of the United States nominates and a Republican-dominated Congress installs, Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education at an annual salary of $162,000, a millionaire, a charter school cheerleader, who has no education credentials, never attended public schools, and whose own children did not attend public schools. Across the country governors have appointed officials to oversee public education who have the same lack of credentials as DeVos, acting like foot-soldiers marching to the same destructive agenda to denigrate public education and teachers and to promote charter schools.

In New Mexico the Secretary of Public Education receives an annual salary of $126,000 – a substantial amount of money for an un-credentialed privatization commando vetted by Jeb Bush, another anti-public – education activist, to oversee credentialed teachers whose average annual salary is about $47,000. It isn’t just Republicans – the Democrats, including Barak Obama and his Chicago pals, have been at privatization hammer and tong for more than eight years themselves. The pattern and motives of these “reformers” are far too obvious to deny or ignore, and it has nothing to do with better educational outcomes. It’s all about money. It’s all about privatization – getting private fingers into the public till.

The irony  is obvious – taking money from the taxpaying public to destroy a vital public institution that, unlike charter schools, must take all comers. Interestingly the attack on public education also comes with a heavy dose of political rhetoric and practice aimed at damaging what’s left of democracy and a civil society using tactics and strategies like voter disenfranchisement and racially motivated redistricting to make voting more difficult. Of course the attacks on public education have been going on for years. In the past the arguments were different and not motivated by greed but by ideas and theories of education. John Dewey described it as the “opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without”. The argument was not motivated, as it is today, by venality but by whether learning is personal and education is social – it was about education as a vital social institution essential to a democratic society.

What you are also not hearing about from the self-anointed reformers is any mention of the critical role of parents in their children’s education, mainly because it would be bad politics to alienate them. However, parental involvement is the most essential element in childhood education. Parents must participate, they must monitor, they must have expectations of their children and enforce those expectations. Teachers cannot do this alone. Another canard is the slavish imposition of testing regimes based on the false assertion that all children are somehow created equal in their learning abilities and interests and so should all test out equally at the same time.

These are cruel and self-defeating assumptions that discourage authentic teaching and learning. We have been inflicted with Common Core, No Child Left Behind, so on and so forth with no end to the important – sounding organizations, programs, initiatives, and whatever else can be conjured to promote the idea that public schools are failing. None of these programs existed in the 1940s and 50s when public schools were turning out well-prepared students. The future was bright with promise; Dads and Moms paid attention to what their children were doing in school and heaven forbid that you took home a report card that indicated lack of attention and achievement. Parents were summoned to have a chat with the teacher and a child’s failure to apply themselves to learning was dealt with.

Public education was not a perfect system then but it worked, and one reason it worked so well was because, in addition to parental involvement,  there was an economy. It didn’t matter if a kid was in an academic or a vocational track, there were jobs and opportunities, there were incentives. It was a different world and no one was promoting the idea of schools as profit centers. Teachers were respected members of the community. There were parental and community   expectations of good behavior and respect towards teachers and adults in general. We need respect for teaching and learning, for personal achievement, and for each other. In the end what we need is rational school reform, not radical school reform.

     

“Enemies Foreign And Domestic” 

  

Jean Piaget, one of the foremost experts in the field of children’s learning explained that in some “there is an absence of the desire to find logical justification for one’s statements, and … an excess of subjective and affective relations at the expense of genuine logical implications.” This describes the stage of development of children from roughly the age of 2 to 8 which seems to perfectly fit the mentality of Donald Trump. There are people who have been deemed “anti-Copernicans”, people who believe that humans continually create the universe via their own consciousness of it. We are now being hustled into the alternative universe of Trump who creates new realities and new universes on the fly as they suit his purposes. The venom of his ambition pulls on the loose threads of the body politic capitalizing on fear and uncertainty, exploiting ignorance. No matter what Trump says, lost jobs are not coming back to the United States but only the products of those absent industries make overseas where there is cheaper labor to exploit.

The Trump assault on health care, for example, is an attempt to drag life as it is lived by many people into a “new world”, a dystopian world of alternatives to the truth and reality as lived by millions of people who cannot otherwise afford health care — a “Let them take aspirin.” version of health insurance to which some are now belatedly awakening. What we are watching unfold with this administration is a total reversal of social gains made over many years for affordable and universal health care, a better and cleaner environment, and better educational opportunities for all children across the population — in short, a more humane society. It now seems the entire social contract so hard-won since the Great Depression and the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt is under assault. We have gone from the keen intellect of Jack Kennedy to an incurious narcissistic individual who can barely articulate two consecutive logically related sentences.

In these intervening years since Jack Kennedy, we have not evolved so much as we have begun to devolve politically and morally. We are engaged in unnecessary warfare in countries around the world where there is no demonstrable threat to this country but where there are lucrative opportunities to use and sell advanced weaponry or to provide access to petroleum resources. We have forgotten President Eisenhower’s warnings about the powerful military industrial complex. We are subject to what Francis Fukuyama characterizes as “a rent-seeking elite, who make use of their political connections to capture the state and use state power to enrich themselves.” The Trump cabinet is populated almost exclusively with such types and they are using state power to their own advantage. 

As a nation, as a people, Americans must come to grips with what is underway and decide what kind of country this is and what it is going to become before the dystopian tide overwhelms us. Are the American people ready to surrender their constitutional rights to an authoritarian government just to get even with people they don’t like? Does the public understand what kinds of people the president has surrounded himself with? Do they comprehend the consequences of appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court for the rest of his life? Do people understand the monstrous conceit and sociopathy of this president and how vulnerable that renders him to the manipulation and machinations of his motley crew and others, perhaps not only Americans but foreign actors who would like to control American policy abroad? What do we as a nation stand for?

When I was commissioned as an Air Force officer I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic” for life. I never thought then I would live to see the day when the “domestic” part of that oath would loom in my consciousness. With revelations of Trump’s dealings and behavior in Russia lurking and ready to be disclosed I wonder where it will lead us. With politicians, national and state, assaulting the Constitution daily looking for means to subvert, undermine, or outright override its provisions  we cannot pretend that this is a benign moment in our history. It has been reported that the Koch brothers have commissioned a rewrite of the constitution even as they are meeting with Trump.  The time to stand up and be counted is now lest those who are on a mission to create a different country succeed.

An amazing story!

This is not a post written by me but a reference to an amazing story shared with me by a former student from when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin -Madison. This story will, I believe, refresh your faith in the political process and what one person can accomplish at this time when our political institutions seem bereft of civility, respect for law, and respect for each other. Please read it and reflect on the values it represents.  … e

<http://kut.org/post/he-got-bad-grade-so-he-got-constitution-amended-now-hes-getting-credit-he-deserves>

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here” but it did.

pres sealI wrote this essay last November following the election. I was disheartening to say the least and I am republishing here as a reflection on current developments and how prescient Lewis was. It seems that the new administration has unleashed, if not encouraged, a lot of anger and resentment that I worry will get out of control. There is an ancient curse that states: “May you live in interesting times.” Here they come.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again yesterday because, in fact, it did happen here. I believe there are are important points made in that novel related to recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States. In that review I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, my opening sentence was also prescient and I felt it wasting to happen more than I thought it. There were many reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem, with their hand over their hearts, but won’t go out of their way to vote? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? Did those who heap heated criticism on an athlete who doesn’t stand for the national anthem vote? What happened that caused a record low voter turn-out? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism and posturing for patriotism? 

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

And, it is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people are revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, and a standing military; for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches?

11/19/16


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