Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Age of Arrogance and Greed

If I’m asked to name the biggest problems facing the world today, my answer is “arrogance and greed.” People tend to shrug at that answer. I understand. These things are just aspects of human nature, and seemingly intractable. When they’re asking this question, they’re thinking of objective conditions such as war, environmental degradation, poverty, and so forth. I don’t expect the mass of humanity to undergo a spiritual transformation. But I do think that in order for problems to be solved, there has to be a change in the social ethos—that which is generally considered desirable in our social attitudes and behavior. Arrogance and greed won’t disappear, but there needs to be a general recognition that these traits are destructive and inappropriate for the conduct of social institutions and government. Instead, they are either tacitly accepted as “the way things are,” or in the case of capitalist economics and right-wing ideology, actively encouraged.

The opposites of arrogance and greed are humility and compassion. Both tend to be ridiculed nowadays, at least in the political arena. They are associated with a sort of airy and unrealistic idealism that is practically unworkable. Politicians of all stripes tend to adhere to self-interest as a guiding principle. This has the effect of enslaving us to short-term goals. It may be ultimately in our self-interest to solve the environmental crisis, for instance, but this kind of self-interest implies a wider conception of “self” that is outside the orthodox view.

Humility involves the simple realization that we are limited and mortal creatures; that we don’t know everything, and therefore must adopt uncertainty and open-mindedness as guiding attitudes if we are to succeed in governing ourselves well. Nothing could be more opposed to the way nations have conducted themselves until now. In the last sixty years, we have possessed nuclear weapons, for instance. These weapons are capable of incinerating millions of people in a matter of minutes. Yet governments have persisted in the illusion that human beings can possess such godlike powers indefinitely; that our wisdom and abilities can be trusted in such a matter. Nothing in the history of humankind confirms this as valid. Arrogance alone, the refusal to practice humility, justifies it.

In daily political life, arrogance is rampant. Politicians and their owners operate from a stance of close-mindedness and certainty, based on their ideologies. You might think that religion would encourage humble attitudes, but the religious groups that have wielded the greatest power have also demonstrated the most unbridled arrogance. Fundamentalists who trust that their sacred book (and their own narrow understanding of that book) is beyond criticism, give themselves permission to be absolutely right about anything they think. The notion of human beings humbling themselves before the wisdom of a higher power has proven ineffective. The zealots, armed with their infallible book, presume to speak for God. They think God needs their help. The self-righteousness of dogma poisons the social atmosphere, while the zealot accuses everyone who disagrees with him while failing to examine his own limitations.

Arrogance has reached a stage in which facts no longer stand in the way. Our political discourse is clogged with pundits and demagogues who make reckless claims and accusations every day, statements that have no basis in reality, but are born wholly from the ideological certainty of the closed-minded bigot.

Compassion in its political form involves the simple realization that all human beings are connected; that there is such a thing as the common welfare. Governments operating from such an ethical standard would seek to foster the basic health and well-being of the community, and not simply be the tools of private gain. On the international level, there has to be an effort at cooperation and the empowerment of all people and countries. Such is the stated purpose of the United Nations, undermined as it is by the hegemony of the richest countries. Mike Huckabee, who calls himself a Christian, recently said that we should cut the UN loose and let it float away into the East River. For such people, there is no value in listening to any other points of view (arrogance) or aiding anyone outside of our nation or tribe (greed).

Even if President Obama had the wisdom of a Martin Luther King, which he doesn’t, it would be impossible for one politician to transform the ethical culture which keeps us bound to narrow and self-defeating behavior. It is up to those people who have realized the inescapable necessity to practice humility and passion to continually express their values publicly, while denouncing arrogance and greed as wrong and destructive. It’s not enough to attack certain persons, as if the problem were simply that the wrong people were in charge. It’s not enough to express positive values without calling out the negative ones, or vice versa. Arrogance and greed have to be named for what they are, over and over, and their opposites affirmed as necessary, over and over. If only one half of this action is performed, there is no choice presented. It hardly needs to be said that humility and compassion need to be practiced to the best of our ability as well, otherwise our insistence on their value is empty posturing.

This is not to deny the necessity for taking practical steps to solve problems. But as long as the sociopolitical ethos is based on arrogance and greed, the practical solutions will be stopgap measures that only gain us a little time, while narrow self-interest labors continually to negate them. Compassion, which recognizes the connection of all life, is actually a form of self-interest, but one in which a long-term and universal sense of self, namely a sense of community, takes precedence over the short-sighted self-interest of “us versus them.” When anti-environmentalists, for instance, ridicule efforts to save a species of bird or fish, they simply fail to see that the extinction of a species ends up damaging our chances of survival. They seem to think it’s just some disinterested love of the animals, unconnected to our own interests as human beings. An awakening of a general ethos of connectedness would gradually obviate this point of view in public policy.

It’s a measure of how cynical and degraded our social conceptions have become that the ideas I’ve presented here probably seem impossible to many readers. The influence of life-affirming values is slow, and often escapes wide notice. But culture does change, and as the conditions around us become more threatening, we are seeing more and more people rejecting the suicidal values that are driving us towards a cliff. Necessity, I believe, is forcing us to access values that have always been within us, both as individuals and communities. But in order for humility and compassion to become more consciously valued as a social ideal, and not just a private belief, we need a third virtue: courage.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What Character?

I’m not often inspired by the speeches of politicians, and I can measure the gap between idealistic phrases and actual policy. Nonetheless, there was something about President Obama’s Sept. 9 health care speech that still resonates with me: his invocation of Senator Kennedy’s letter in which he said that, “At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

It’s important, in other words, that we ask what kind of country we are, and what kind we want to be. This question doesn’t get asked in public very often, at least not in the mainstream, not in Washington. Whatever core beliefs are at work in the echelons of American power are revealed through actions that often belie official rhetoric. The central one, it seems to me, is to make money, and make as much of it as possible all the time. Politics is simply a way of aiding the “economy,” the modern term for business interests. On the face of it, this is a legitimate purpose or value, if you look at in the most simplistic terms: people need food, housing, the ability to fulfill various other needs and wants, and the means to raise and educate children. These are just the terms that are emphasized because they are at the end of the chain of power. Voters can understand that. But those aren’t the operative terms. Capitalism functions through the self-interest of the capitalist, not because of a socially desirable result.

Ask any CEO if there is any other motive that takes precedence over the profit motive in the operation of a company. If he’s honest, he’ll say no. That’s how it works, and within those terms, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem is that this motive, this sole overriding principle in the operation of a business, became identified with the ultimate value of society. The “free market” ideologies, identified most purely with Republicans but permeating the thought of members from both major parties, are hostile to any principle that places itself above the profit motive. Politicians may say something different, but in practice the core value is profit above all else. And there are consequences to this regarding other human values—there are effects on our character.

The logic of “free market” values leads to deregulation, removing effective oversight from business, and to so-called “privatization,” the handing over of traditionally public functions to business. It also leads to the dismantling of social programs, which have no profit-centered logic, and therefore no reason for being. From the victory of the right wing under Reagan until now, the effect on the economic condition of the masses has been quite clear. The middle class has become increasingly less affluent, with wages stagnating and families forced to take two or more jobs in order to get by. At the same time, the poor became poorer, and more numerous with the addition of people falling from the middle into the lower class.

I never saw masses of homeless people on the streets before Reagan was President. Almost immediately after he took office, they became a permanent presence in our cities. The ideologues mounted a campaign to explain this fact away. The homeless deserved their plight: they were lazy, irresponsible people who often chose to be homeless. The same kinds of campaigns were waged against welfare and food stamp recipients. This wasn’t just a practical move on the part of the right—it was a conscious attempt to define the American character in a new, non-liberal way.

Which brings me back to Obama’s speech. Kennedy’s notion of “social justice and the character of our country” has its roots in the epochal founding events of modern American liberalism, the Depression and the New Deal. Such ideas had of course existed long before, but they gained power under FDR. Essentially what the New Deal said is that we as a nation have a stake in caring for the basic needs of people, and that this “caring” is in itself a principle independent of the profit motive. It was never that the profit motive should go away, or that there is something inherently wrong with making a profit—although the free marketers would always try to paint liberal thought in those terms. It was only that there were other worthy principles and values that people need to live by, besides making a profit. And that all these principles must be honored in order for a country to be well and justly governed.

Schooling children doesn’t really make a profit. People try to couch it in terms of the country needing to have well-educated children in order to be “competitive” in the world economy and so forth, which only goes to show how much the profit motive dominates the public discourse. But really, most parents don’t seek to educate their children for business reasons.

The same is true for having a police force, a fire department, public transport, traffic lights, driver’s licenses, and a host of other public institutions and functions. Communities have needs, and the need for businesses to make money is only one of those needs, not the only one or even the primary one. So when the “free market” ends up denying basic needs to people, such as food, shelter, and health care, the contradiction between the belief in the sacredness of the profit motive and the reality of most people’s lives becomes evident. In the case of health care, it has become insupportable, and yet the disciples of making the most money possible all of the time will fight tooth and nail to prevent health care from being recognized as a right, since they recognize no other good but profit.

The world in which profit has been elevated above compassion, caring, family, neighborhood, and friendship is very much like the world depicted in Charles Dickens’ novels, the world of predatory capitalism before regulation. If we can accept people living on the streets, ultimately we accept them dying from cold or starvation on the streets. From there, we can accept people dying because they can’t afford treatment for their health problems. If it weren’t for labor laws that were pushed through by liberals, we would be accepting children being worked to death in factories. In fact, corporations still accept it when they use sweatshops in other countries.

The point is, there is no possible moral or principled objection to such things in terms of the “free market.” In philosophical terms, human beings are replaceable objects in the profit system; if profit is the one organizing social principle, then there is no crime that is not excusable in the name of business. I’m not speaking of the future here, but of the present. The prisons are packed with poor, working class, and minority criminals. The so-called “white collar” criminals are, more often than not, given a slap on the wrist, or even acquitted, if they’re ever charged at all. This is an open secret in our society, and it follows from the valuing of profits over people.

What then is the character of our country? There is no simple answer. The masses of ordinary people, working day by day to get by, possess whatever variety and degree of character they have been able to cultivate. People still love their families and help out their neighbors. It’s a fact that the lower middle class gives proportionally more to charity than the rich or upper middle class. I don’t believe that self-centeredness is the only distinguishing trait of our society. I don’t think we could have survived this far if it were. But as a country, we are split. The economic system, and the government, is aligned with a callous and anti-humanist philosophy. By no means is there agreement on fundamental principles of social justice, or even that social justice is a good to be aimed at. For the country to realize a character greater than the examples of greed and power-seeking we have been shown so far will involve relegating the profit motive to its proper place in society. It will always participate, but it can no longer run the show.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Best We've Got

A patriot says “My country, right or wrong.” A nationalist says, “My country can never be wrong.” Implicit is a different view of what “my country” is. Simone Weil made the distinction in The Need for Roots between country as land, people, culture, and language; and nation as authority, state, army, and flag. And I would add to that list the notion of a dominant or privileged class. The nationalist wants to be in a dominant group, and will kill his fellow countrymen en masse in order to achieve that.

In the United States, the tension between these two ideas of country is at a height, and the lines are often blurred. We hear a lot about the founding fathers these days, and the ideas and principles that guided the U.S. at its birth. Everyone wants to claim that mantle. But history is never simple, and when we try to make it so in the service of our ideals, we do ourselves a disservice. When I truly love someone, with the deep and unconditional love that comes with time and effort, I don’t just love certain attractive aspects, but the entire flawed human being. I would argue that the same is true of loving one’s country.

The right-wing extremists who still dominate public discourse have an antique schoolboy veneration for the founders without displaying much insight into their ideas, the principles that shaped the Constitution of the United States. American revolutionary thought was anti-autocratic. Despite major differences in the views of such figures as Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, they shared the vision of a republic that would represent the will of citizens rather than the desires and caprices of a monarch or dictator. The founders, being British, were enormously influenced by the British parliamentary and legal tradition. It was, however, too easy for Great Britain to succumb to despotism in one form or another, and the founders therefore sought remedy for this by fashioning a purer kind of republic that had no monarch to be revered, but three branches of government with powers divided between them, all servants of the people.

To this structure was added a Bill of Rights that restricted the government’s ability to interfere with people’s lives. If you study the first ten amendments as originally ratified, you get a good idea of the threats that the founders were worried about. A tyranny would try to control what religion people could practice, what they could say or print, their ability to gather together in groups for peaceful purposes, and their ownership of arms. A tyranny would attempt to break into people’s homes without legal warrants based on probable cause. It would try to arrest and imprison people without formal charges, without the right to confront their accusers, detaining them indefinitely without trial and without a jury. A tyranny would steal people’s property from them, or force them to give their property over for the use of the military.

All these threats, these fears, sprung from the founders’ experience of treatment by the British government. They all reflected the desire to prevent untrammeled authoritarian power, which they called tyranny, and to make government a servant of the people rather than a master. The founders differed as to how much power and authority the government should have—Hamilton believed in a strong central power, whereas Jefferson and his followers tended to think in decentralized terms. All shared the belief that the legitimacy of government power depended on the consent of the governed. What exactly this “consent” is, and how to determine it, was the perennial issue of debate, and it was in the very nature of a republic for this to be the case.

If we look at the right-wing “patriots” of today, outside of the pure libertarians, it is remarkable how indifferent they are to the actual thought of the founders. What we see here is crude authoritarianism, in which “America” needs to be the greatest and most powerful country in the world, providing its citizens with a good measure of economic affluence. The Bill of Rights is mainly viewed as an obstacle to getting things done, and other than the part about bearing arms (which makes money for the gun companies), the “rights” enumerated are painted as threats to national security, law and order, morality, and the Christian religion. When someone outside of the right-wing becomes President, the “patriots” start squawking about rights again, but it’s only political warfare, not principle, since the same rights didn’t mean anything to them when a right-wing President was in office.

What we have, then, is an American “patriotic” movement that is essentially no different than monarchism or dictatorship—the polar opposite of the republican ideal aimed at by the founders.

Turning from the schoolboy notions of American history to actual history, in the air and sunlight of reality, there is a painful tension between the ideas of the founders and the historical conditions in which they grew. British colonists settled on a new continent, killing and displacing native populations in the process. The cultivation of land and the development of this new society were greatly facilitated by the importation of African slaves. The property owners held power, and enjoyed the greatest benefits, including the benefits of education. They were the true “citizens,” not the laborers or the poor. Women had no vote—that went without saying, as it was the condition of women in all of Europe as well.

Post-revolutionary history reflects all these tensions quite explicitly. The killing and displacement of Indians increased as colonization expanded westward. This expansion brought out other imperialist tendencies, such as in the Mexican War. And of course, the existence of slavery became an impossible moral and political burden, resulting in a huge civil war between the northern and southern regions of the country. Although slavery ended, the struggle over the status of African Americans continued.

The tragic and bloody history of the United States has caused many on the left to be skeptical about the republican ideals of the founders. If Washington and Jefferson held slaves, how can we take their notions of liberty seriously? This is an understandable reaction to the schoolboy version of American history. Moreover, the awareness of economic power and the class system as crucial factors in politics makes the founders’ reliance on Enlightenment ideals seem na├»ve. They tended to rely on moral explanations based on character, without reference to economic realities. Yes, despotism has its root in greed and selfishness, but these character defects thrive in a socioeconomic culture.

But to be aware of the truth of our history does not necessitate turning against love of country. For the right wing, in the spirit of “my country can’t be wrong,” the only recourse is denial or minimizing. Slavery wasn’t so bad; the Indians mostly deserved what they got; that sort of thing. For progressives who still retain love of country, however, the answer lies in a vision of the United States as work in progress. We view the republic as an ideal to which successive generations add their experience and insights, expanding the scope of what liberty means. In fact, this is largely in the spirit of the founders themselves, who had the foresight to make the Constitution a document that could be amended and variously interpreted. They even made provision for more constitutional conventions by which the people could revamp the founding document. We were not stuck with slavery, or with no suffrage for women. Provision was made for change, although it was deliberately made rather difficult to actually amend the Constitution, perhaps more difficult than has been good for us. The rapidity of social change has made our founding document seem rather rickety at times.

The states, for instance, were very important entities in the beginning. It really meant something to be from Virginia, or New York, or Massachusetts. The U.S. Senate owes its origin to this notion of state autonomy. In modern times, though, with migration between states becoming so common as to be the norm, there just isn’t the same significance attached to the idea of one’s home state, at least not in the political sense. It has created an imbalance of power in the legislative branch, since sparsely populated states such as Wyoming have just as many senators as California or New York. This reinforces an American provincialism which empowers the most backward elements of society. It would require a major Constitutional change to correct this, and it’s not at all clear that this would be to our ultimate advantage.

The biggest problem with the form of government bequeathed to us, in my view, is that it did not prevent the rise of an industrial capitalist ruling class that has effectively assumed power in the U.S. government since the 19th century. Critics point to the use of the 14th Amendment to confer personhood (and thus citizenship status) on corporations as the nail in the coffin. As long as corporations are treated as free entities with rights, their dominance of the political process is assured.

No Constitution will ever be perfect, and ours is no exception. At heart, though, I think the system of government devised by the founders is better than any of the alternatives so far attempted in other countries. I suppose this makes me old-fashioned. I just think it’s the best chance we’ve got, and I see many of the problems posed by an imperialist, corporate, authoritarian America as a turning away from the American tradition, a regression, if you will, to older monarchic and despotic ways of thinking. There is no mention of Wall Street in our Constitution, or of a two-party system. The equation of the United States with such things is a convenient myth for the powerful. As an American progressive, I embrace love of country, and love of our Constitution as a living document capable of growth and adaptation. I accept this framework as what we have to work with, and I look with suspicion on those who claim to support it while undermining it with their actions.