Posts Tagged 'society'

Binary Pablum For The Masses

The smoke and mirrors tactics of the 2016 presidential campaign continue with the relentless repetition of empty mantras such as “Make America Great Again”, “Lock Them Up”, and “Fake News”. Venom is being spewed across the country, part and parcel of the same strategy of puerile name-calling, disruption, and confusion as we witnessed in the last election 

This is the fundamental strategy of the non-stop Trump campaign that continues to create and manipulate ressentiment and foment a collapse of civility and faith in government. It is all shuck and jive with some of the mainstream press unwittingly complicit in Trump’s strategy simply by repeating his vile utterances. The press cannot ignore even a bloviating President, of course. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The Joker in Chief deliberately deploys a maelstrom of contradiction with which the entire civilized world must struggle, and that, of course, is the intent. Keep all the rhetorical balls in the air. Keep everyone guessing. When did America stop being great? What isn’t great about America? There aren’t any answers forthcoming because there is no truth to appeal to and none is demanded by his True Believers. It’s true because their Dear Leader says it’s true.

How this came to pass and why it has been so effective are the $64 questions of our time. One answer to consider is a longing by so many people for a world where everything is rendered as simplistic binaries. No subtleties, everything is black and white. A very large proportion of the mainstream public does not want shades of grey, they want certainty. It’s a longing, if not a desperation, for an,“Us against Them”, “Right and Wrong” world. Good guys vs. bad guys. They want it to be like Tom Mix riding to the rescue, blasting the bad guys, and riding away on his white horse with the fair maiden holding on behind him. Destroy the Taliban. Destroy al Qaeda. No big deal! And, while you are at it, why not take down the United Nations? Take all those freeloaders off Social Security, welfare, Medicare, and food stamps. No DREAMERS, no foreigners. Up or down, left or right. With us or against us. Never mind consequences or complexities and nuance. Don’t stop to think that you will be hurting yourself. It’s only a matter of “bada bing”, drop a few small nukes here and there and everything will be back to the way we imagine it. We’ll be “Great Again!”

Trump gives his base a comforting, simplistic conception of the world, a peculiar form of indecipherable clarity. No questions need be asked, he has their backs. He says whatever comes to mind and it’s swallowed whole. “Lock her up!” None of it is realizable, of course, it’s just out there like a gigantic public Binkey. A warm bowl of Mom’s chicken soup, binary pablum for the masses.

    

The use of simplistic binary rhetoric has been the modus operandi of Populist leaders throughout history. Hitler and Mussolini were masters of the tactic to rally and control their true believers by pointing at designated illegitimate members of their society. Today’s undocumented Dreamers and refugees are yesterday’s Jews of the Third Reich. We have a President, a Silvio Berlusconi with bad hair, who will say whatever it takes to maintain the delusions. It’s the confusion and the illusions he creates that hold his polity. What kind of destructive mentality emboldens a person holding the highest office and the highest level of responsibility in our society to publicly denounce people like James Comey as an “untruthful slime ball”? What kind of gall does it take for a five-time draft dodger to insult and threaten Robert Mueller, a retired military officer who has served this country honorably?

What will emerge out of the chaos being spewed out across this country and across the world stage remains to be seen.  And I don’t doubt Putin is having a good laugh at our expense. 

Porcupines And The Social Contract

Porcupines and the Social Contract

Sometime back there was an image on the internet of a snake that had swallowed a porcupine. I didn’t click on the image to see the video of the event as the photo was sufficiently vivid. That image came back to me after seeing photos online of Trump and members of Congress beaming into the camera having reached a happy compromise over the debt limit in order to facilitate hurricane aid to the affected states. The Republican Speaker of the House did his best to make it seem like a good time was being had by all. The Republican party, I think, swallowed a porcupine when they climbed onto the Trump bandwagon and they know it. The daily damage and destruction inflicted on the American social contract by the Trump administration has revealed a number of people who are now realizing they too have swallowed a porcupine.

Not long after hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, the President explained that Puerto Rico is an island way out in the ocean, thus making aid difficult. Despite begging from elected officials, prevarication characterized the presidential response to the emergency and attendant tragedy. Puerto Rico was still engaged in an ongoing humanitarian emergency weeks later as well as a verbal duel with the president, who visited the island and demonstrated his concern for the people by throwing packages of paper towels to them. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the government and its partners were providing only 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. As if the Puerto Rico tragedy were not enough, just a week or so later a gunman, firing from a hotel room 39 floors above street level in Las Vegas, shot and killed 59 people and injured more than 500 who were attending an outdoor concert. The President’s response?  It’s “premature” to discuss guns.

In some respects the porcupine seems to be going down easily. The President is eagerly joined by Congressional Republicans on certain issues. Speaker Paul Ryan in discussing the Republican sponsored tax cuts, explained that the middle class would somehow benefit from those cuts that were mainly for the wealthy. Middle class people would pay more to fund the cuts. Oh, yes, of course. So far the proposal has been stalled and new, sweeter proposals offered. This is the same Paul Ryan who led the Republican assault on Social Security and public education which should also give people a clue to just how destructive his party and this President are intending to be to American society and our limping democracy. The assault on public education, by the way, is the same strategy employed by demagogues and dictators throughout history; control education to control the minds of children and young adults so they become easier to manipulate as a general public. Control information with falsehood or distortion to control the public in general. And, let’s privatize public education to make a profit while we are at it.

  

What we have here is an untethered reality, a president who believes whatever he says is real and true. It is true, of course, that people can believe and not believe the same thing simultaneously. It’s a form of solipsism, the idea that anything outside your own mind doesn’t exist so you can inhabit your own reality simultaneously with inhabiting the outside social world shared with others. This self-defined world is fueled by what is sometimes referred to as “existential fatigue” which has been defined as a personal search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. It isn’t a complicated matter for the people who voted for Trump who know his  background of financial cheating, child molestation, self-admitted sexual assault complete with comments on how to approach that. Yes, good church-going, self-defined “Christians” remain supportive of the President and his agenda. What to make of this? A remarkable fluidity of perception, loose commitment to a social contract, and a fungible belief system. Now, while the porcupine is getting a lot of attention it’s the snakes facilitating the porcupine that we have to watch out for. And the snakes had better understand that once swallowed, the Porcupine has only one path out.

Ripples Into Riptides

John Adams once wrote – “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” The unrelenting war on all forms and manifestations of a democratic social contract has led to bloody revolutions in every era, on every continent, and in virtually every culture. They all begin as slight disturbances, ripples on the surface of daily events, minor perturbations in the status quo that eventually take on a destructive life of their own not unlike the early gentle rumblings of an earthquake.

History clearly demonstrates political Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies, they are contentious and contradictory belief systems. Capitalism has, at bottom, become a quasi-religion as much as an economic system. Whereas Capitalism is amoral imposing no limits on wealth extracted from the commons, Democracy, on the other hand, requires morality of community, civility, and commitment to the common welfare, in a word, “sharing”. Sharing is anathema to Capitalism because there is no monetary profit and so is vilified by calling it “socialism” or worse. Controlling the vocabulary of debate is an old and useful tactic.

When any kind of amorality becomes pervasive, it desensitizes a society with a form of instrumentalism that justifies other amoral behaviors creating a destructive pathology of civil decline. One need only recall the rise of Nazis and their vilification of Jews in pre-war Germany to understand how this dynamic works. For a recent example, how can a society justify killing someone for selling a loose cigarette while lionizing and bailing out with taxpayer money, bankers who impoverished millions with their greed? In the US today 49.7 million people qualify as poor, 80% of the total population is in or near poverty.  In the face of this calamity politicians are proposing cuts in the Food Stamp programs, Social Security, and health care. To what end are we again, it seems, being driven to the intersection of civilization vs barbarism, a society committing suicide.

When a country acts immorally it diminishes its moral authority across the board. When a government offers “facts” contrary to the truth people who are actually living it it relinquishes its moral authority, authenticity, and agency. The innocent adults and children killed by our drone strikes is a truth not ameliorated by the fact that there is always collateral damage during war. Collateral damage is a morally reprehensible argument against justice, a false use of truth invalidating claims of moral superiority over the enemy. Sadly this behavior also speaks in the names of all of citizens of the state causing the harm and that includes you and me. The US is a country in which thousands tout their Christianity and at the same time accept criminalizing feeding the hungry and homelessness. Everything is related to everything else in one way or another.

In Cleveland, police summarily executed a 12 year old boy at a playground. The boy was holding a bb gun. The same cops also threw the kid’s sister to the ground and handcuffed her for wanting to reach her dying brother. The boy died, the cops offered no first aid or care. In a news interview Police Union Chief, Jeffrey Follmer, placed absolutely no value on the 12 year old’s life – none! His callous  response? “How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop … that eliminates a lot of problems.” He added, “I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it.” Listen up, Nation, Jeffrey Follmer has spoken a fact which is truth for many Americans, you live in a police state – do what you’re told – or else we’ll kill you even for selling a lose cigarette. Is this American Exceptionalism? Is it justice? What kind of society have we become? What are we becoming?  We have the facts but are we ready to face truth?

There are many more examples but the foregoing seem to encapsulate a version of the social contract that is in opposition to what we believe to be normal – they portray a new normal in which truth has no moral function and human life has no value. The facts are, do what you’re told and everything will be alright, but the truth is something else. The truth is we cannot be parties to torture abroad or unwarranted killing at home unless we accept our own complicity. It is valuable to note that the most outspoken critic of CIA torture was a Congressman who himself, as a prisoner of war, was tortured by North Vietnam. Is that what it takes for people to understand that inhumanity – to be tortured themselves?

  In all of this, it is essential to understand that facts and truth are not, in fact, the same thing. Facts are devoid of morality, they simply describe and nothing more. Truths, on the other hand, are an integral aspect of moral thought and behavior, truths give facts meaning. Facts exist in a moral void and truths are a moral context. I have personally witnessed many instances of individuals spewing facts and not describing the truth, using facts to obscure the truth, to create cognitive dissonance. Lawyers and politicians do this routinely. It’s a shuck and jive the end result being that an audience or a jury never understands the truth and so defaults to the better liar.

We are, in the 21st Century, engaged in a new round of Democracy vs Capitalism. We must question. We must challenge – each of us. Time is running out on what’s left of this Democracy and what is left of a civil society because we are avoiding truth. We must tell truth to power and demand truth from them lest the ripples turn into waves and the waves into riptides of destruction. Truth is a virtue not an inconvenience, there can be no justice without it.

990

 

At The Crossroads: About The Social Contract

The social contract is generally understood to mean the arrangements people agree to, either explicitly or tacitly, to exchange absolute freedom for security. As part of the grand bargain, duties are levied along with the rights granted to individuals. In Western societies the social contract revolves about the writings of the 17th- and 18th-century philosophers Hume, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. In general, the writers cited centered their definitions of political authority around God, natural rights and a government constituted of either a monarchical or parliamentary nature. Hobbes thought men must consent to be governed, Rousseau believed in self-rule and Locke believed in “natural rights” granted by God. The Declaration of Independence of the United States owes much to Locke. While it is true that the structure of what is taken to be the contemporary social contract is generally derived from the writings of those philosophers, the historical discussion does not end there. Like everything else, there is much more to the matter than meets the eye or the standard definitions.

The origins of the social contract lie well beyond recorded history and long before hominids walking upright were a novelty. In fact eusociality, the “true social condition,” is found in insects such as ants and termites, whose origins can be traced to 100 million years ago. The term “eusociality,” as used in theories of social evolution, describes cooperative brood care, overlapping social generations and division of labor within groups. From the starting point of eusociality our human ancestors evolved physically and socially and enlarged upon the three basic requirements.

Cooperative child care and overlapping social generations yielded a continuity of shared experience; division of labor enabled males of the species to hunt and forage. This new phase was inaugurated likely by A. afarensis, the first hominid believed to have walked upright, three million years ago. The new posture meant looking for food and watching for predators became easier, and life on the planet was, in a manner of speaking, looking up. Primitive though it was, a social mechanism was being created and defined as, in the words of Robert Ardrey, “ … a group of unequal beings organized to meet common needs.” These simple arrangements continually evolved over millennia, becoming more and more complex to achieve the social structures we inhabit today; the social contract expanded beyond survival to global domination by the species Homo sapiens.

The social structures of bands, tribes, camps, villages, towns, cities and, eventually, nations followed those simple earlier footsteps in an evolutionary process known as complexification. One step at a time, human  consciousness evolved from immediate family to the planet in that continuing process, moving in relatively short order from simple kinship campsites to the complexity of the United Nations. As Edward O. Wilson put it, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology.”

I will dare say that if asked today whether or not they are a part of a social contract most respondents would be perplexed, it never having occurred to them that such exists. Because we are continually immersed in our social contract we fail to notice or be aware of the fact that there is one and that we are bound to it. It is like fish not being aware of the water around them – it is simply there. In spite of its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, the social contract has been the focus of much writing and thought by biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and many others for a very long time.

Following his trial in 399 BC, Socrates’ taking of poison and the discourse leading to that exercise is an example of an early social contract (which act became a subject of discussion for philosophers ever after). Accused of corrupting youth with his teaching and questioning and impiety by failing to acknowledge established Gods and introducing a few of his own design, Socrates exchanged his life for his belief in a social contract in which he believed he was free to question established beliefs but ultimately wasn’t. It was the same grand bargain, the exchange we all make regarding absolute freedom, even if not at such a price, to live in society. It is important to recognize that it was his belief in that Athenian social contract that led Socrates to act as he did.

In China during the reign of Zu Jia (1177-1158 BCE) questions about successful harvests, successful military campaigns, and even about the weather were believed to be revealed by reading cracks in heated turtle shells. Such archaic beliefs have been abandoned only to be replaced by others and those varying from culture to culture. Modern societies have their own versions of baked turtle shells to believe in. Robert N. Bellah put it well: “In an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us.” Ultimately, all social contracts rest on a centuries old foundation of belief and that is a matter to be pursued as this series of essays proceeds. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, “… it’s beliefs all the way down.”

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