One Nation, Two Governments, Civil Discord

Across the divide, two nations eye each other, suspicious and nervous. The problem they face is one of fundamental identity, exacerbated by a complete obfuscation of recognizable borders, because they live in each others’ back yards. There are times it seems a spark could set them at each other, breaking down doors, killing, attempting extermination.

Extreme? Sounds like any one of numerous civil war scenarios in the past half century, from the collapsed Yugoslavia to Rwanda to South Sudan. Neighbors, sometimes with intermarried families, abruptly at each others’ throats.

We take comfort in the confidence that it can’t happen here. But in fact it often does, and has, just not in the nationwide, all-vestiges-of-law-and-morality cast aside scope of some of these places. And in the past several years we have heard the rattling of sabres among groups that feel this kind of explosion of rage and all-or-nothing “readjustment” is becoming necessary. We hear talk of “second amendment solutions” and the threat of violence if an election goes counter to a certain set of expectations. Many of us probably shudder briefly and then resume our tacit reliance on law enforcement and the basic civility of our national “character” to ensure that it won’t happen.

But flare-ups, brushfire conflicts, terrorism…these things do happen and will and may become more common before we realize a solution. What do we think all these mass shootings are?

It’s easy to see them as aberrations, one-offs and outliers. Not anything to do with a legitimate issue. A “gun control” issue on the one hand, a “mental health” issue on the other. But what if they’re symptomatic of a deeper problem having to do with how people see their lives within contexts which some view as universal and others, contrariwise, see as alarming shifts in representation?

While wrestling with the symptoms, we are absorbed in the label game. 

Here seems to be the basic problem: we have become two nations (maybe more) by the progressive drift of perceived representational dynamics over decades. The people who, for a simple way of identifying them, voted for Trump and support what many view with alarm as a destructive suite of anti-government policies that appear purposed to strip civil rights, are reacting primarily to what they see as their abandonment by what was once their government. All the talk about “taking America back” is not simply a rhetorical device to discredit certain policies, but expressing a genuine sense of having been cut out by the very institutions they once supported as American citizens.

The reemergence of certain symbols and organizations—the Confederate flag, the KKK, the whole concept of Originalism—baffle those of us who have viewed the social progressivism of the post WWII era as a Good Thing. The so-called Safety Net, the destruction of accommodation barriers, the gradual (and much too slow) emergence of equity consciousness, and the growing sense of self-awareness vis-a-vis our national character and its shortfalls—all these things, for many of us, are net positives. In our own lives, the sense of security, the expansion of community, and the acceptance of limits on the use of power have defined for us a maturation, something which seems so obvious as to not need defending as ideals. The use of government to achieve these things felt like an obvious means, since most other instruments of social change seemed arbitrary, with spotty records, and often a priori resistance based on tribal identities which ran counter to the larger goal. Not to mention obvious limits on effectiveness. The progress achieved, many felt, appeared so self-evidently right as to be its own justification. 

We forgot certain key elements (or never knew them) and ran headlong into the wall around a completely different set of assumptions, namely those that defined community according to an unexpressed (though sometimes aggressively mischaracterized) principle of exclusivity.

One of the characteristics of what we call “Americanness” has always been an assumed tolerance. The whole Statue of Liberty aesthetic overarches what we believe is our national distinction, that we welcome anyone, that there is a basic egalitarianism we simply accept, and that here the prejudices of the past do not pertain. It’s an impossible standard, however, not so much wrong as unattainable in the face of all the other aspects of our national identity which stand against it. By that, I mean things like American Exceptionalism (which is understood, if at all, as an inbred trait rather than as a property of institutions and systems) or the rather pernicious belief in individualism as our most useful trait. These things can combine to challenge any claims that anyone from anywhere can be as “good” as we are. (This underlies and informs a peculiar expression of imperialism which manifests differently than what we consciously identify as such.)

We are tolerant as long as it seems to cost us nothing, or at least nothing we feel as part of our identity. In this we are human, like anyone else. But because we believe we are by definition more tolerant, we can be blind to instances of systemic (or personal) intolerance, often transferring the causes onto those against whom we behave intolerantly. “Its their problem if they can’t or won’t appreciate how good we’re treating them.”

(Implicit in that sentence is the essence of the problem—the exclusivity—that “we Americans” know what is good “them” and have chosen to bestow it. Some may feel this is largesse, graciousness. Those receiving it may feel it to be arrogance, especially since some of the most important things never get “bestowed”—like genuine acceptance and equality.)

Since 2016, these disconnects have emerged into the public sphere unapologetically, erupting into ideological conflict, with the whole apprehension of Government exhibiting profound rifts between groups that fundamentally misunderstand each other.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps even the assumption that there is any misunderstanding itself is a misunderstanding of what is actually happening, what we are really seeing.

Firstly, though, I think it is important to understand tolerance. In my view, tolerance is a step along the way to normalizing a relationship. We tolerate the new until a space can be made for simple acceptance. For individuals, this can be a very long time and occasionally acceptance never comes. For communities, however, a different order of processing must come into play. Tolerance is a period during which assessments must be made in order to determine the nature of what may be a new normality. Again, acceptance may never come, but what is vital is the attempt and the assessment. During this process, the community and the thing being tolerated have concomitant obligations to find that space or find a way to reform around mutually beneficial conditions of being. Special spaces may result wherein practices and behaviors might be sustained in ways that do not run counter to the community at large. (Hence, religious communities may find places within secular societies in an accommodation requiring respectful acceptance of differences from both, and certainly a degree of interaction which will naturally change both parties over time. The willingness or at least acceptance of gradual change to allow the accommodation to work better is necessary. Problems arise when an obdurate rejection of any change, on one or both sides, is experienced. Change still happens, but it likely will not be beneficial to either group.)

Too many people seem to believe tolerance simply means “putting up with something you don’t like, understand, or approve of.” In this formulation, there is no acknowledgment of the necessity to work toward accommodation. It becomes a static condition, unresolved, and therefore an irritation. Furthermore, it would appear a significant number of people feel that tolerance requires them to be “like the thing tolerated.” This, if accepted unreservedly, can lead to unresolvable tensions and eventually rejection.

This is vital to understanding where we have arrived in our current distress.

Whether morally sustainable or not, structurally we have worked under a false formulation of what Equality means. Regardless of what it says in the various declarations of rights, we are not born equal. “Created” equal may be more accurate than we usually think, although in this case it has nothing to do with theological origin stories (though they certainly, all of them, contain the germ of reality). People, in a given context, are literally “created”, i.e. made equal—by those acknowledging their status. It is a consequence of initiation. Equality, at least the kind we’re always arguing about, is a wholly political and legal state, requiring the bestowal and recognition of agency and admission as an equal according to the requirements of the community.

We daily move through the world with a base assumption that we were born into this world with a full set of naturally-bestowed rights. Any perusal of history demonstrates the falseness of that assumption. We may well argue that it should not be that way, and I would certainly be among the first to agree and argue against the desirability of the opposite view. But in the struggle to defend and expand such rights, I believe it is important to realize from whence they come and how they are secured.

And how they are reduced.

The 20th Century saw profound changes in our understanding, at a fundamental level, of what constitutes a just society. It drove us to embrace a “care and feeding” approach across communities that, to some extent, sought to dissolve previously traditional barriers between classes. During the Great Depression this was easier to do than previous eras because the catastrophe had so threatened the status quo that positive action was possible if only to forestall a revolution. It was not at all certain at the time that capitalism would survive. The collapse was global. After WWII, the changes resumed in the areas of civil rights and economic enfranchisement. It was doable then because of the unprecedented expansion of our economy, which made it seem that all these changes would actually pay for themselves and cost the comfortable almost nothing. It was easy to be magnanimous during fat times.

With the Sixties came even more progressive actions extending to the environment and declaring a war on poverty itself. Along with this, we saw an eruption of challenges to tradition, lifestyle changes, erosion of public conformism, much of it æsthetically problematic, along with a loud denunciation of the state apparatus vis-a-vís the Vietnam War, which called into question the previously unexamined givens of the responsibilities of the individual to the state when moral evaluations of specific actions are at issue. 

Right here we can see the fissures forming which have led to where we now are.

The presumption currently, for some, is that a group of us have turned against their government. I think this misses an important point. I do not believe these disaffected people believe their government has simply drifted away from them. Rather, they believe there has been a coup and this is not Their Government, nor has it been for a very long time.

That shift serves to explain many otherwise baffling aspects of the current divisiveness in the country. Primarily because, if this is the case, then all those who seem so dedicated to bringing about the collapse of what the rest of us see as sound governance see themselves as patriots and our criticisms of their choices and actions would be to them the desperate holding actions of an alien polity.

For the first few decades after WWII, government could be seen to embrace a traditionalist embodiment of American values. Not until Vietnam and the Counterculture did the cracks become chasms and it was evident, at least to some, that what had once been taken as given had in fact become anathema to a different set of priorities and, indeed, aims. The people government traditionally represented—white, lower to upper middle class, essentially Christian, native-born, prone to assume what the government did was in the main for the “common” good and ought to be supported—began to separate into two broad groups: the first, those who, while still more or less holding those traditionalist views, believed in the expansion of the franchise, the modification of representational democracy to better serve previously under-represented groups, and who had gradually become less inclined to blindly trust what the government did. The second, those who had watched with growing alarm at the emergent enfranchisement of both groups and ideas that ran counter to what they viewed as “American” and became less and less enamored of the changes embraced, supported, and advocated in Washington. 

In its simplest terms, the former group have come to be defined as liberal while the second, conservative. The disagreement between the diverging viewpoints quickly centered not so much on the policies in question as on the authority of government to enforce said policy. For many, it may well have begun simply over a question of who retains the authority to determine behaviors. Tolerance, even condemnation of past discriminatory policies, may have been perfectly acceptable, but not if mandated by law. On the other side, addressing these issues—which for many are matters of justice—are necessarily the proper function of government. Think segregation, fair accommodation, educational and employment equity, and so forth.

Up till 1974, both these groups, divided as they may have been over basic questions of proper governance, largely saw The Government as their government. The tug-of-war between ideologies and government responsibility has always been a normal part of our republic, and the give-and-take seen as a necessary pendulum swing in the quest for optimal policy. Conservatives and Liberals saw each other as part of the same community.

In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face impeachment, which was in the offing. This signaled the end of status quo political comity. The Right (not conservatives, but who nevertheless saw themselves as such) saw this as a coup. 

Nixon was possibly the last conservative Republican president who still believed in the kind of service that defined the core of 20th Century American democracy. While he brought to bear many deeply problematic, even destructive policies, he also did many things which today would be anathema to his presumed natural base, the EPA for instance. He was, in fact, working to bypass rule of law to push his agenda and the “shadow”government he used to do end-runs around congress was the cause of his undoing, a method later used by Reagan and then, more thoroughly, by Vice President Cheney under Bush.

Given the decade just ended, however, with Vietnam and the whole parade of culturally-challenging upheavals known as the Counterculture, it must have looked to many people as if the one “decent” American who wanted to “bring us all together” had been hounded into exile by political gypsies, fellow travelers, and Leftists who lacked any regard for traditional American values. Discussion of whether or not Nixon had been framed was common up through the Nineties, and may still inform dinner-table conversations in many rightwing households today.

If, as it appeared, Nixon’s downfall was a fiendish coup to oust “decent” government and replace it with something so outside the pale as to threaten the very idea of America, then viewing this moment as the point at which Everyone’s Government became Their government serves to explain what has happened since and how support for someone like Trump can be accepted as part of a war to reclaim that government. Mitch McConnell’s defiant refusal to do anything President Obama wished to do now makes sense as another step in a conflict wherein one part of our country feels it is not being served by “that” government, and until all the liberal influences can be ousted and replaced by dependable “conservative” elements, then the war continues. Trumps “drain the swamp” rhetoric is a battlecry in this war, embraced by people who feel Washington is held by people who have wrested it from them.

The dispute over diverse issues such as trade, abortion, immigration, marriage equality, and taxes comes down to a bitter fight to retake a government which is seen as illegitimate. And in such a war it does not matter if the Other Guy has a good idea, he is first and foremost the “Other Guy, on their side.” And must be opposed—especially if he or she has a good idea. Accepting the idea would be the same as legitimizing a government viewed as “not mine.”

Those who say there is a civil war going on may be correct, but not the kind we might expect. For their part, Democrats, who for purposes of convenience (if not in fact) we can characterize as liberals, have been trying for some time to accommodate a Republican Party that has seen its ranks replaced over time by warriors in the cause of winning this war. To date, many of them have not yet realized the nature of the dispute.

We can ask on what grounds the disaffected Right has embarked on this war. There are many answers, but the one that matters most is that for too many of them, government has failed to serve. The one issue on which they may have common cause with the left is the question of who that government does serve. Too often, and for many complex reasons, it is the moneyed interests, who for their part really don’t care which side is “right” as long as they are granted freedom to manage finances as they see fit.

On the ground, however, we find ourselves back at the beginning, in a debate over tolerance—what it is and where and to whom it applies—and those who feel this is not “their” government look upon all the things they distrust and even despise as attempts to bury their way of life. Shouting at them that all this is making it difficult is not impossible to govern, while intended perhaps to make them more aware and shake them out of the grip of whatever obdurate self-centeredness we may think is possessing them, is precisely the point behind how they vote and what they wish to see enacted. Or, in many cases, repealed.

What they’re saying is “Hey, we’re the Americans here, not Them! Try governing in our behalf instead of undermining everything we believe in!”

The opinion of those who disagree with all those things just angers them more.

But it does, in fact, come down to a question of what tolerance is. Is tolerance a space wherein an opportunity for understanding to grow on both sides? Or is it merely a suspension of disapproval until someone learns to be “like us”?

It is perfectly understandable that now, when it appears that another coup has taken place and the legitimacy of government is at issue, that questions of racism and sexism, homophobia and economic justice have exploded into the public arena in ways not seen in a long time. These are the icons of tolerance. One side looked upon changes in the past with a kind of “how long do we have to put up with all this before it can return to normal?” fraying patience, while the other side pushed to make these changes not only permanent aspects of the landscape but footholds leading to further changes. 

Government, in some ways, has been caught in the middle.

We will not resolve this until we recognize the nature of the divide. 

College Placement

Growing up, I had an ongoing war with education. Not the content of it so much as the method of transmission. I hated school. Hated being there, hated being held accountable for failing to meet its requirements, hated the monumental waste of time I considered it. My continual demand was to know “what is this for?”

As for the content…well, judge for yourself how I may have felt about that. Clearly I have suffered from the inattention I paid my classes.

This recent scandal about celebrities bribing admissions officials to get their kids into pricey schools underscores something I came to believe and explains one of the reasons I never got an answer to that “what is this for?” question. It also explains—demonstrates—how the American class system operates.  (What, you really bought that stuff about this being a classless society? I bet you did well in school, too.)

Teachers seldom give answers to that question because they suspect, if not outright know, that what it is for is nothing but a lottery to see where you place upon exit in the hierarchy of society. The content of the lessons is less important than the status bestowed by matriculation from certain institutions which can grant a Good Housekeeping seal on students that says “These are acceptable.”

It’s hard to see it in the chaos of social interaction, but for anyone on the receiving end of the snobbery and elitism endemic to the process, you can’t help but know this is how it works.

Usually we’re aware of it with regards to athletes who get special treatment in order to keep them playing for the school. (I suspect it happens far less than advertised, but it doesn’t take but a few to stain a whole system.) Now we have the evidence that something has been going on in general, all tied to money.

A couple of things may be inferred from the two big-name actresses who got caught trying to buy into the system and cheat for their offspring. One is, what does this say about the kids in question? Did they fail just to get into these schools or did they not come up to scratch anywhere? (One wonders if they asked for this “but my best friend is going there!” begging.) Or is it just that mommy knew that the prestige of the school was far more important than any actual education being offered. That a degree from that school would open more doors than one from this school.  (For all the less well-off kids who simply never have that kind of choice and have to make do with what they can get, this must seriously grate.) And what does this say about our (shopworn but not altogether ragged) pride in merit and ability?

In grade school, around fifth or sixth grade, we started playing a game at lunchtime. I don’t know if it has any other name, we called it “Initials.” The rules were simple: name a category, give the first or/and second initial, and then guess the thing being named. It started with movies and tv shows, but over a few months it grew into a rather elaborate thing that included historical figures, geography, ships, cities, cars. Four of us became very involved. We were going home and doing research for this game.

The principle stopped it. Just shut it down. He thought we were spending far more time and energy on it than on our “studies.” Well, we were. It was fun, but more than that, we were learning. He didn’t see that. He stopped it in order to preserve the form of education, which was not fun.

I mention that because later, when I looked back on it, I found it supported my view that education is only tangentially related to the content of a subject. The purpose it to make citizens. Failing that, it is to enforce conformity.

Which, by the time you get to the college and university level, is a game of associations. You go to these schools to make these connections which will serve you far more effectively in work life than what you might actually learn along the way.

No, I do not believe that is all there is to it, and I do believe actual learning takes places, otherwise all those “associations” would do nothing but show us who to blame when nothing works anymore. But clearly that part of it is far more important than we may be willing to admit and obviously Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman believed that.

And whether we want to accept it or not, the flip side of this is demonstrated by those parents with no money who are doing serious jail time just for slipping their kids into different school districts for a presumably better education. (Even if you accept my premise, that association matters more in this system, then the disparity is clearer still.) Who am I talking about? Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio and Tracey McDowell in Connecticut. There are probably others.

In any case, when wondering about privilege, well, here’s another example. And it damages far more than just the reputations of a couple of entitled celebrities and a couple of school admissions officials. It erodes trust that often finds definition difficult. The whole notion, never true or at least true enough, that all anyone needs is hard work to get anywhere desired, is corrupted by this kind of thing.

I am not surprised this happened. It has doubtless been happening for centuries to some degree. Gentry have always tried to smooth their descendants’ paths through life and if they had the money, they used that, regardless of what talents and abilities the beneficiaries brought to the game. For them, it is a game.

For too many, it’s a violation.

Elizabeth Warren is calling for the blanket forgiveness of student loans. She wants college to be free. I have some quibbles about this, but in principle I support it. If the road ahead is to be navigated by those with the knowledge, charging a toll for that knowledge would seem the opposite of any democratic sentiment. And since college enrollment has risen in the last four decades precipitously, obviously a lot of the “wrong” people are getting in. The best way to shut the out of any advantage is to keep charging them more for the ticket. Forgiving the debt might be the right thing to do, but then the upper crust would have to actually compete for those choice positions and the perks that attend them. Free college would not level the playing field, but it would at least make the game more honest by allowing for genuine ability to compete.

And if college is free, how could anyone bribe their way in? (Well, there will always be ways, but it would be harder—and over time, maybe pointless.)

Just some thoughts.

True Belief

For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.

This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.

“Look at Venezuela!”

As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.

Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.

Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.

This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”

To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”

But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.

If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?

It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.

But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.

In short, religion.

Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system.  (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.

What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.

Economic systems are similar.

And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?

The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.

The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.

According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:

For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.

A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.

Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.

Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.

We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.

But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.

Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.

But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.

What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.

Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood.  For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.

 

Unintended Consequences and Reagan’s Legacy

Trying to understand our present circumstances can easily take one into a kind of archaeology. How did we get here from…where?

I see a lot of people putting up old videos of Ronald Reagan making statements which the present Republican Party would not support on a bet. The argument over Social Security being one of them.

Listening to Reagan today feels odd, like he was some kind of kindly old uncle who patted the air and told us all to calm down and eat our vegetables and play nice. He is, however, held in such high esteem by people who wouldn’t tolerate his old school moderation for a minute, and you have to wonder why.

That he’s dead and no longer around to criticize helps. But it doesn’t explain the heart-felt gratitude of those who are so far to the right of him that it’s surprising they’re still on the map.

To a younger generation, it must seem strange. What was it about Reagan that has turned him into an icon for people who seem bent on dismantling everything he seemed to have stood for?

Knowing what he stood for, though, is a problem.

He was elected as a reaction to the public perception of his predecessor as a weak president. Reagan was the modern era’s first MAGA president.

To be fair, he was elected at the end of a decade of lows in American history. A president left office in disgrace, we ended a war in ignominious defeat (though many believed otherwise), the economy was reeling from the combination of major cuts in spending for war materiel, the demobilization of millions of servicemen, expanding job opportunities for women and minorities, and a general malaise. The Seventies were split between those who wanted to party and those who wanted the kind of presumed clarity of the WWII era. Jimmy Carter was a genuinely good man in an impossible position, although in hindsight he was dealing with things, and given another term might very well have solved many of these problems without the consequence of fueling a rising cronyism and the beginnings of the deep divisiveness we’re living with now. The debacle in Iran did him in and we elected The Great Communicator.

He had another nickname—the Teflon President.  His administration resulted in 138 indictments and/or convictions for scandals, the largest of any president.  Scandals from grant rigging to the savings & loan crisis (a test run for 2008) to the Iran-Contra Affair. Somehow, none of this managed to tar his image and no hint of any wrongdoing was ever successfully laid at his feet.

And yet.

In my opinion, we are living through the consequences of Reagan and what I feel to be the greatest disservice he did to this country.  Done, I have no doubt, from the best intentions.  He saw himself as a savior, willing to do just about anything to rescue America from its own self.

A few years ago I was in attendance at an event with James Rosebush. He served as Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. He had published a book, called True Reagan, and he was touring. The book is about Reagan’s religiosity. Apparently, Rosebush had had many conversations with Reagan and as the two of them shared deep religious convictions, many of these conversations revolved around that.  Rosebush contended that Reagan was a Biblical scholar. During the presentation, there was even a hymn sung, Reagan’s favorite (no, I do not recall which it was).

Rosebush said something that night that sent a chill down my backside but which almost immediately put the last 30 years in a clear context. He claimed that one of Reagan’s core beliefs was that government, especially large government, was an obstacle to people knowing Jesus. That it was one of his missions to do something about that.

Hence the whole shrinking the size of the federal government thing he kicked off.

But it also makes one of Reagan’s most famous statements make a completely different kind of sense.  “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Mileage varies, of course, and individually people will have different experiences, but when you consider the size and complexity of this country and all the services our governments, state, local, and federal, have performed, the United States has had possibly the most successful government in history. Never mind the mean-spirited detractors who spin it with hearsay and lie and chafe under regulations.  Now that we have someone who actually is tearing things apart, as these institutions begin to fail we may come to see how well they worked before because we never noticed them till they no longer functioned.

But to the point that Reagan saw government as a barrier to god, that statement takes on a wholly different meaning.

The problem, of course, is that we did not know he believed that. Rosebush said Reagan knew he could never say so in public, because he knew he could never get elected.

I’m sorry,  but that’s fraud. I believe we had a right to know that’s how he felt. Because most people who voted for him did so no doubt under the mistaken belief that he intended to make government work better.  I can say that because throughout our history, that has been a basic assumption in ever election—vote for this guy because he’ll make things run better.

Not tear them apart.

Reagan’s antipathy toward the Soviet Union clarifies with this as well. Granted, most Americans thought of the Soviet Union as an enemy, but there was certain fervor Reagan brought to it that went a bit beyond.  He raised the deficit and the national debt to field a war machine the sole purpose of which was to spend the Soviet Union into penury. But the fact remains that he was Republican, running in a party that traditionally viewed itself as the more fiscally responsible of the two major parties, and he began a decades-long cycle of mounting debt incurred under Republican administrations. Along with this was the rise of the Grover Norquist arm of conservatism which sought actively to suffocate the federal government.

This is the legacy of this unstated and unrevealed philosophy. The reversal of the parties in terms of spending and fiscal responsibility can be put on Reagan.

Two other things he did which, combined with the above, put him the running for one of our most destructive presidents. He opened the door to a politicized religious movement that has vexed us ever since and he initiated the Second Gilded Age with the absurdity of trickle-down economics.

Neither of those two had the kind of apparent impact they later manifested, but he started it, and, I believe, in support of his unstated belief that government must be reduced to a size where it can do almost nothing for people.

Because, after all, government gets in the way of people knowing god.

At this point, it would be useful to point out what may be, for some, a distinction without a difference. We are often challenged by charges of anti-religiosity when a programmatic measure is resisted or struck down as unConstitutional. School prayer, for instance. What seems obvious to those with less ideological intentions is that the idea of banning school prayer is absurd. No one can do that. Prayer is personal. How can it even be monitored? No one can stop a child from praying in school—silently, at any time. What is demanded, however, is not prayer but recitation in support of attempted conformism. Those who insist on such demonstrations, whether they realize or admit it, are not seeking a freedom to pray—which is private and personal and unrestricted—but the permission to force adherence by public observance. The difficulty should be obvious in any example of divergent religious beliefs.

This, among other things, becomes a rallying point for the belief that government interferes with religion. The day the government sends agents into a church and orders the congregation to cease worship is the day you will have that.

I point this out to make it clear that what has resulted from Reagan’s unstated beliefs is not in support of religion as a personal expression but an ongoing debate over the texture, tone, and tenor of our public identity. And before it is taken that I mean something akin to a fashion statement, it is important to remember that when you insert these changes into public discourse, you are making a statement about what is acceptable, which eventually can become matters of law. This is not benign. The simple answer to school prayer has always been: let each child pray silently according to his or her own creed, which has never been acceptable to the vocal advocates of formalized school prayer.

Because Reagan also allowed the intense politicization of the Religious Right in the form of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. As an example, he could not have been more obvious in his preferred form. Falwell was strident, divisive, arrogant, and something of a charlatan. His was a programmatic christianity that sought, in contrast to all past fundamentalist movements, political influence if not direct political control.  Apologists will say Reagan only used them to stir up a base of voters with no real intention of ceding anything to them. If so, then that, too, would have been a species of fraud, but one we have become accustomed to, at least in a naively cynical way. By the end of his presidency, however, the lines had been clearly drawn and we see the battlefield in stark terms today.

At the same time, this movement, such as it was at the time, was gifted with an issue that allowed it to shift debate from the tractable to the unanswerable: abortion. What this did for those who have fueled the divisiveness is allow for transfer of concern from systems to identity in a way that had not been done since christianity overwhelmed pagan traditions.

Most problems in human relations can be addressed if not solved through practical methodologies—systems. Most of the 20th Century in the United States and, arguably, throughout the world has been a period of aggressively creating institutions and systems for dealing with what at one time or another have been profound problems, from food distribution to health care to legal equity for citizens. We were actually getting pretty good at it, so much so that it seemed possible that we might solve all the major problems and establish the kind of continental if not global future once considered the pipe dreams of science fiction. (We’re still on track in many areas, present calamity-politics notwithstanding.)

Granted, no system is perfect, and granted something always go awry. People get overlooked, ignored, sometimes trampled.  (But if you want to look at an example of how successful our system-building has been, as a rough measure, look at how much free time and access so many people have today to complain about how bad they have it. Not that many people don’t have it bad, but compared to 60 or 70 years ago, more of us are enjoying the benefits of effective problem-solving to the point that too many people have no idea what it is they’re trying to dismantle or how bad things would become if the dismantling is successful.)  But we can look back and see a clear progress. We’ve been getting there.

But systems are complex and understanding them, especially in terms of why something hasn’t been fixed yet, requires the kind of time and attention most of us do not have. When election time rolls around, many of the issues are abstract, heavy on detail, and necessitate a grasp of nuance in causal relationships that, frankly, we pay our representatives to understand so we can get on with our lives.

Along comes Reagan and, more importantly, the iconoclasts riding in on his coattails. In order to sell their program—and in order for the Religious Right to gain and maintain traction in the political sphere—the attention of the voter has to be moved from the mind-numbing tangle of systems to the clear-cut, heroic lines of indentitarianism. Namely, the struggle of Good versus Evil.

Abortion was tailor-made for that.

Reagan was less concerned about that, though, than about the Soviet Union, and given his apparent belief that government interfered with people knowing god, the Soviet Union for him could be nothing but an exemplar of Government As Satan. For him, this was not a struggle over competing economic systems and their concomitant expressions of colonialism—this was about Right versus Wrong, Virtue versus Sin, God versus godlessness.

So he began the tradition of sapping our national wealth to fund a crusade against evil in the world in the form of the Soviet Union.

There was, frankly, never much enthusiasm for trying to find common ground with them or, given victory in the struggle, providing aid to see them through into a workable polity. Because that would have meant building exactly what Reagan thought was wrong in the world—a viable and rather extensive government.

This also undid him in the Iran-Contra Affair. His convictions about communism being irreconcilable with godliness led him to fund brutish men who used those arms to destroy schools and clinics. He could not see past his preconceptions to understand that, while he might disagree philosophically with the Sandanistas, they had been duly elected by their people, and the targest of the right-wing Contras were sick people and children along with federal troops. It was a shameful abuse of his office.

Reagan exhibited a deep and largely innocent faith in people being basically able to do anything they needed to do, without state assistance of any kind. He must have felt that without the tremendous burden of soviet state apparatus, the Russian people would just naturally have developed into a benign community of self-sufficient American clones. If he felt that way, he did not understand the nature of his own people, either.

Consider another action he took that has resulted in a massive problem today: according the Rosebush in the same lecture, Reagan “did not believe in psychiatry or mental health problems.” He gutted HHS, if you recall, and shut down the mental health institutions that had been caring for the disabled. They ended up on the street and many remain there because there is nowhere for them to go. PTSD does not exist, bipolar disorder is a myth, and I suppose schizophrenia is possession by devils and the sufferers only need to find god.  However far down the line he actually thought this through, the result has been a chronic homeless problem that had the added “virtue” of demonstrating the insufficiency of government of solve problems.

As for his economic policies, that was clarified as well. He based his program—supply-side or, popularly, Reaganomics—on something know as the Laffer Curve. I wrote about it at the link. It has been obvious for a long time that he did not understand economics well enough, if at all, to see this for the nonsense it was. (His vice president understood, hence his smoke and mirrors comment, but by the time George H.W. Bush was in office we were wedded to it.) I don’t believe it would have mattered. It looked like a way to get the government out of economic regulation, which by extension would have ultimately crippled the government, which would be consistent with his unstated beliefs. For what it’s worth, I also do not believe he expected it to really hurt anyone. I think he naively accepted reassurances from business that if he “took the chains off” of course they would do right by the country.

(A side note here: Reagan oversaw the pillage of our high-tech industrial base. Not many people are aware that during his two terms over 280 companies fell prey to the corporate raiding of the day and were purchased by foreign owners, primarily British and Japanese. These were not companies that just made lightbulbs and tv remotes, but many companies doing classified work for our government and had developed very sophisticated methods for building very complex things that gave us a considerable edge globally. Upon purchase, though, those methods if not necessarily the products became foreign property and we lost vital edges. Many of these companies petitioned Washington for protection because of the highly-sensitive nature of what they did, but Reagan grandly declared that we “have no industrial policy” and allowed them to be sold out of the country. To my mind, this shows no Machiavellian long-game, but a fundamental disconnect and a lack of understanding about the nature of what was happening and what we were losing. But it is consistent with his opinion, apparently, that government should stay out of everything. See: Anthony Campagna, The Economy In The Reagan Years)

They did right by themselves, which has resulted in the morass of stagnant wages and endless arguments over cost-of-living, and the obscene imbalance in wealth.

Once begun, the diminution of our public faith in our institutions proceeded apace, to the point where we collectively mistrust everything and grope for tangible meaning that might once have simply been there had we known at the time what it was this man, who remains for many one of the greatest presidents we ever had, truly believed. Now we are faced with these pocket movements of denying everything from the Holocaust (a perennial favorite) to the Anti-vaxxers and climate change denial. These are all aspects of systemic knowledge and in the case of vaccination of systemic problem-solving (successfully, I might add) but which have been tied to big government and somehow in opposition to a moralistic self-image that rejects codification.

So, based on these things—supply-side economics, the decoupling of institutions from public faith, and the shift in public discourse from problem-solving to indentitarian posturing—I put in my bid for Reagan being placed near the bottom. And the irony is, he probably had no idea it could get so bad. He was basing his iconoclasm on a firm faith in the very institutions he had launched his supporters to destroy. He had a deep, quaint faith in American Goodness that was unsupportable then and seems badly mauled now. The average American probably is, by most measures, a good person, certainly not malevolent, but once you rise through the layers to where power politics and money mix poisonously, Goodness is only something talked about at the bottom of a ledger or the tally of a poll.

Government interferes with people knowing god.

There are two major things wrong with that idea. The first comes out of a twisted notion that people only go to church when things are bad. So if we solve problems and fix our institutions and secure the common wealthfare as we can, this belief says we will lose faith in god.  Why worship god when we can do this all for ourselves?

Well, that’s a rather punitive and stunted view of religious faith. Not uncommon. But even if it were true, for the adherents to justify wrecking the well-being of people they don’t know in the cause of pushing them out of necessity into a set of beliefs that may not be free and genuine is vile.  (Of course, there is a corollary belief that successful states are automatically decadent and this is ungodly. Well.)

The other thing wrong with this, is a simple misapprehension of that old saying about deities working in mysterious ways. What if those successful institutions are the natural expression of a faithful community?

Either way, to hold such a conviction and then run for high office and allow people to believe you will do the right thing by them—well, you may, regardless, but to withhold that information means you don’t trust your own message or the people you’re delivering it to. We had a right to know the man we were electing as well as possible.

Now we have another of these Make America Great Again people in office, only there is no good-natured, naive uncle in that suit but a venal, corrupt narcissist who likely would never have gotten close to this had the stage not been set by a man still worshiped and longed-for who could not now, as he was then, get elected to a state legislature for the party he once led.

Government interferes with people knowing god.

And we wonder why there is a separation of church and state built into our constitution.





November 8th

I am still sorting through my feelings about election day. A couple of things, not new.  Election Day should be made a national holiday. There is no excuse, unless the parties are determined to prevent people of opposing or “unreliable” groups voting. 

Another thing, I think we should stop talking about impeachment. It would blow up in all our faces if the House moved to impeach.  Not that I wouldn’t like to see him removed, but right now the downside might be worse than just letting him lose the next election. Impeach him and lose, which would happen with a loaded Senate, and he’d be a martyr of sorts. There is more than enough work to be done and right now enough momentum to see through a change in occupant in 2020. Let’s let the process work.

We have made colossal fools of ourselves this time around, through our divisions, our indifference, our fear. Watching the exchange with Jim Acosta the other day I half expected him to get down and try to punch a reporter, which would have been delicious.

But enough. We know that if elections are free and open we can repair this. We know because we’re still witnessing attempts at gimmicking local elections and in many cases it still did not work. 

We have to trust that we can do this.  The machinery is not broken but it must be used in order to function properly.  To all those out there who still sat on the sidelines, you are helping no one. 

Anyway, the chief problem right now is that certain people are playing the oldest political game in the book—they are making us afraid and then pointing out targets. So I ask, in all honesty—

Just what are we afraid of? 

And make no mistake, some folks will claim they aren’t afraid, just angry, but when they take action and lay blame, we know otherwise. They’re afraid. 

Of what?

It would be easy to mess this up by allowing distractions and pettiness.

But enough.  Let me leave you with an image.  There’s a lot in it, and can be interpreted in many ways, but the truth is mainly that I think it’s a cool photograph.

Have a good day.

Simply Stated

Let me for a few minutes be clear.  We bandy politics and philosophy daily, there is a give and take which makes us who we are, and the vast majority of it—at work, at school, on weekends, among friends—is good. The free exchange of ideas is the very basis of who we wish to see ourselves as a country.

Comes a point, though, when the belief that all ideas are somehow equal and equally valuable must be challenged and disposed of. This is a toxic notion, a slow poison, and in its later stages results in an inability to discern reason from fear, truth from propaganda, morality from tribalism.

If someone tells you that you should be afraid of  some superficially-defined Other, that person is not your friend.

If someone tells you that if not for Them, all our problems would be solved, that person is a liar.

If someone tells you that you are more valuable than someone else because you look one way and They look another, that person is using you.

There are those—politicians, all, whether they serve in political capacities or not—who benefit from the rest of us being afraid.  They categorize, sort, and judge and tell you to do the same on the basis of traits that are at their simplest none of your business and at the most complex entire fabrications that resemble fact but are nothing but fantasy.  All they want is the power you will give them by accepting their version of reality.

It could not be clearer that  none of this is theoretical. The cage doors have been flung open and the jackals are loose. We have always had the hatefilled, the small-minded, the stunted souls, the corrupted among us, but they stay usually in their rooms because—usually—the rest of us refuse to allow them valence. That changed. They received day passes.

Shooting up a synagogue, a church, a school, a nightclub, a concert because the shooter is so blindly afraid does not happen in a void.  Someone stoked that fire, then stood back, counted the votes from the newly-frightened, and judged it a win.

This is not who we once thought we were. There are those implying that this is somehow insurmountable and to deal with it we have to go farther down the road of disowning our dreams and our decency and, by the way, keep Certain People “in line.” 

They aren’t hiding anymore and the argument that both sides are equally at fault has worn into threads.  Stop listening to the fear mongers.  More, take away their pulpit.

We should not allow ourselves to be defined by body count.

Poll-Less

Here’s a thought. November 6th is fast approaching.  It could be argued that we have not seen a more important mid-term in decades. I can’t think of one, other than all those that people stayed home in droves from and allowed a minority to vote a broken congress into power.  We have a chance this time to start fixing some of that.

My suggestion—stop paying attention to polls. They have nothing to say to you personally.

Seriously, polls are like click-bait on the internet. They track trends among certain demographics and are often so targeted that they leave most people out entirely.  Even the good ones have in-built flaws. For the most part, they’re annoying and often harmless, but sometimes…sometimes…

Part of what went off the rails in 2016 is an artifact of polls. All but a couple told us there was no way the election would go the way it did.

And a lot of people took them at face value, said “I don’t have to worry about it” and did something else that day.

Before anyone jumps all over this and suggests I’m blaming this on one thing, I said “part of what went off the rails.”  The polls added to a number of problems.  But I believe that voting according to polls—or, worse, not

The only poll that matters is the election.

I would suggest everyone stop answering those irritating cold calls “We’re conducting a poll” robo-things that use what we say in who knows what manner to derive reports that may have no real utility in terms to making rational choices On The Day.

Everyone believed the polls that said this guy would lose by double-digits.

Stop it. Look at the candidates, look at their records, look at what they say, then look at your own situation and try to see how what they say, have done, or promise to do will impact your life.  We’re hiring staff to run the country on our behalf. Does an employer check a poll on how popular a candidate for a job is or what people think of him or her as opposed to someone else? No. Resumes, past performance, conduct during the interview, can this person do the job.

A great number of incumbents have said and done things of late that are, in my opinion, simply unacceptable. The track record of this congress in terms of how I want my country run has been simply execrable. That’s the only poll that matters until November 6th, when the one that counts happens.

Polls, I suspect, make some people complacent. Don’t do that. Vote like you have no idea who will win. Vote for what matters, not what the spread suggests. Stop listening to the distractions.

And please—vote.



Doors, Handles, Other Things

Some controversy has erupted around the Hugo Awards. Again.

I have two memories that relate.  One was an early memory of one of the Oscar presentations wherein someone—an actor—took the opportunity to make statements of a controversial nature.  I was young, I didn’t entirely understand why all the adults around became so…resentful.

Yes, that’s the word.  They resented the intrusion of controversial matter into what they seemed to feel was something meant for them.  It was on their television, it was supposed to be there to entertain them, it was not supposed to make them think about things outside the movie that was being honored.

“That’s not the appropriate place for that,” was a phrase I first heard then and later heard a great deal in situations like this.

The second memory involves a concert wherein the performer took a few minutes to say something about oppressed people and political will and so forth.  Its matters less here what he said than the reaction of some of my acquaintances.  “I hate it when they do that.  They shouldn’t put politics in the show. It’s not the proper place for that shit.”

Well, that struck me wrong at the time.  It was rock, which in my mind had till then always been political. Remember the Counter Culture?  Hippies? The Free Speech Movement?  Vietnam?  Country Joe and the Fish?  Rock had a history of being political, so this seemed…revisionist?

 

 

Not the proper place.  Not the appropriate venue. The wrong stage.

Well what is?  And by what criteria?

And who exactly is breaking any kind of contract here?

Nora Jemisin won her third Best Novel Hugo in a row.  Her brief, pointed acceptance speech spoke to the work she had to do and some of the barriers she had to overcome to get to this point.  It is, or should be, no secret that her being on that stage has been a matter of some consternation to some people who have not exactly been circumspect about their feelings.

Some folks thought it was “inappropriate” for her to interject comments aimed at those who have quite vocally wished her ill.

“Not the proper place.”

Well, frankly, fuck that.  If not at your own award ceremony, when? Some time and place where the easily offended won’t hear it?  At a place and occasion where it won’t be noticed?  When she does not have such a platform and can say these things without anyone having to be confronted by it?

Art is complicated.  And damned hard.  A lot of factors come together to keep the artist from any kind of success.  Life is difficult enough without the mediocrities of the world ganging up on someone toiling in the mines of self-expression.  We all know most of us do not get paid enough for the work and all too often the work gets ignored—the vagaries of the marketplace—and all the other noise and bother that goes into trying to be an artist that to then be told to shut up about the human experience, in all its forms, is neither reasonable nor decent.

For some people, there is no “appropriate time and place” to hear truth from someone who will tell them things about the world they live in that they would rather ignore.

But it doesn’t matter.  Her award, her night, her time, her place.  You have a problem with it, be aware—it’s your problem.

And just in case anyone is wondering—the award?  She earned it.

Right To What?

This is a purely political post. Sort of. Maybe a bit philosophical. Anyway, you’re all sharp, you can figure it out.

I’m voting No on this proposition A thing. Right To Work.  For decades we’ve been seeing this pushed on us in Missouri and it always fails, but with the current climate of “throw everything out” that seems to dominate a lot of popular thinking, the proponents are wearing the rest of us down.

A simple fact: workers in right to work states make less on average.  This is not rocket science. They have a weaker collective bargaining base, the unions lack resources because non-members are often entitled to receiving the same representational benefits without having to contribute, and overall unions are simply less present in such states. Here is a good overview if you’re interested.

Now, when presented with the idea that we all have a “right to work” and should not have that right hindered by the requirements of union membership, it sounds pretty righteous to certain people. Yeah, just who do those guys think they are making me pay dues just to “allow” me to have a job? It sounds so reasonable.

You have to accept a couple of things for this to make any sense. The first, that Management has workers’ interests in mind. Ever. Some do, it’s true, but historically workers take close to a last place position in the priorities of employers, because they have all these fiscal details they have to take care of. And if the company is large enough to have shareholders, guess who’s first in line for consideration? Again, this is not rocket science.

If workers do not insist on fair treatment they will not get it. They will be treated as parts. And to insist on fair treatment without some kind of weight behind the insistence only results in unemployment.

The ethical or philosophical basis of “right to work” may have its positives, but the reality is that abandoning collective bargaining and legislating against it and stripping unions of their ability to function effectively benefits only one group. Because “fairness” aside, it ought to be obvious that for the last 50 years the erosion of unions has resulted in our current antagonistic relationship between corporations and employees to the detriment of employees.

It’s not just pay, either. Without collective bargaining and contract law setting the terms, businesses can fire at will for any reason. That’s what they’re trying for.

It should also be put to rest that corporations are “struggling” to meet payrolls. There are many examples of companies that pay well for similar work and do better than their penurious competitors (Costco for one).  When you see annual reports from companies that see profits going ever upward, often at the expense of their employees, the lie should be obvious.

Now, what is reasonable is the notion that some kind of reform needs to take place in this relationship, but meaningful reform will not happen if you give all the power to just one side. Whether we like it or not, profits drive decision-making, and shareholder benefits will always outweigh workers’ rights unless there is the force of contract law brought to bear. You cannot do that without viable union involvement, and things like Proposition A are nothing but an attempt to render harmless union power.

But for a moment, let’s look at that phrase, Right To Work. Rarely has there been a better example of doublespeak. Firstly, while such a right may be argued to exist, it’s a meaningless right when all the other factors are brought into play.  Like qualifications. You may well have a right to work but if there is no work available that you can do, it doesn’t mean much. By phrasing it as a “right” it sounds like it should be in the constitution—but if it were, more likely than not we would have a federal workers union at a national level, because securing rights has always—always—been a matter of forcing someone to concede them. The average employee at a nine-to-five job is not, much as some might wish to construe it, an independent contractor. No company negotiates individual contracts with its hires. No company would unless forced to.  And it’s not as if the people this is targeted at are not employed. Many, probably most, are.

There is no “right” to work. There is opportunity. But no right. Not unless it is made. Because of the nature of work and business and employment in this country, if there were such a right it would obligate the very people who want to strip it from you to provide employment regardless of circumstance.  The proponents of Proposition A know this perfectly well, so their arguments in support of it are lies.  This is not about your rights but their privileges.  This about securing companies a right to reduce payroll, lay off with impunity, and require longer hours and provide fewer benefits. Period. At best, this would be a right to do the same work for less pay.

This is of a piece with all the other moves in recent times to simply secure larger pay-outs to shareholders, which is what has already happened with the new tax cuts. We keep getting told this will allow companies to invest more and hire more people—and it rarely happens. Most job growth comes from start-ups or from major refocusing by existing companies changing what they do. For the most part, none of these companies need more employees. There are exceptions. Construction right now has a shortfall of available workers, but again there are other factors involved in that than union meddling.  Instead, what we see, time and time again, is pay-outs to shareholders instead of that much predicted and rarely delivered reinvestment.

Stop believing they have your interests at heart. Some might well feel an obligation, but the nature of business in this country makes such people vulnerable to  all manner of piranha-like behavior on the part of their competition. What they would have you believe is something like this: “Let us take away your ability to force us to pay a fair wage and provide benefits and as a reward we will pay you even more!” There is no reality where that is remotely plausible. What is needed is a reassessment of how we do business with an eye toward reducing some of the predatory models that force us into these narrow defiles of limited-resource thinking.

Now, a personal disclaimer. I have never worked for a company as a union member. I’ve worked for one large company that had no union and was very aggressive at preventing unionizing. The history of that company is instructive. It began as a local business and grew to have a number of outlets. They paid a reasonable salary and provided commissions on high-dollar items. The sales force was happy. The local owner got old and sold the whole thing to a national company, which promptly cut wages in half and eliminated commissions. Most of the seasoned staff left and the company then took to hiring younger workers they knew would only be there for a short time because of the low pay. They saw no benefit in nurturing a staff. They didn’t care. After working for them for 14 months, I got a .10 an hour raise—and my hours were limited to 37 a week so there was never a possibility of overtime. The new company was based in Texas, which had been a right to work state since 1947.

To wrap up, I’m voting no. I might sympathize with some of the philosophical notions underlying the idea, but as far as I’m concerned a whole lot else has to change to constrain corporations before I’ll believe any good will come out handing over power through legal fiat and trusting the other side will play fair.

Shibboleths, Canards, and Popular Myths

At this point, a couple of things should be obvious to anyone with a functioning intellect.

(Please note that I make a distinction here between a brain and the intellect, which, while they depend on each other to be useful, are not the same things.)

A popular American myth we all absorbed osmotically just by breathing the air here: Anyone can grow up to be president.

Obviously, at this point, nonsense, though in an absolutely literal sense it seems to be true enough. After all, consider the present reality. But like all such euphemisms, there are too many assumptions packed in there that too many people take too little time unpacking to realize that what this means and what it can result in are worlds apart. While technically true, it leaves unspoken the basic assumption that in order to become president, first one has to grow up. While there is an age limit in the Constitution, this is obviously not what we mean by Grown Up. And while it is true that anyone, given opportunity, can certainly “grow up,” clearly not everyone does.

The other unspoken element of that is the question, begged this last time, of whether or not anyone (or everyone) should be president—or even have a shot at it. Clearly this question gets raised over some issues, but not, it seems, enough, and in the case of providing young minds with a working idea of the possibilities of their futures, maybe not even the primary one.

Till now, we have relied upon a vast and complex, rather organic system to cull out the genuinely unsuited, but obviously it didn’t work this time.

Which leads to the other common notion that ought really to be questioned a bit more thoroughly, that we should rely on Common Sense.

Something about this label has always bothered me. I’m reminded back in the Seventies and Eighties the answer to the Moral Majority was They Are Neither. (A throwback to the statement that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire.)  I know what it’s supposed to mean—common sense. What everybody knows. What a child can figure out through basic ratiocination. That things which are too complicated only require a simple approach to unravel. That the “average” person has the capacity to understand things, often in the absence of detail and facts. Things aren’t logical, common sense will tell you the problem.

Well, frankly, piffle. I think the term Common Sense is actually a derogation. Because if common sense has handed us our current situation, it clearly doesn’t do what we seem to think it does.  I think Common Sense is something we should take as a warning that not a lot of comprehension or sophistication is going on in its deployment. It seems clear to me, and not only in politics, that Good Sense is not very common. And that what passes for Common Sense will get you in trouble faster than anything else. There is no substitute for finding out how things actually work and lately there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that going on. Instead, calling upon Common Sense seems to indicate someone who will obstinately not find out how things work.

The Will of the People…

Sad to say, this is one that we have to be very careful about. Lately it seems to apply only in discussions about who won. And not a lot of discussion about how the winning was done or what winning means or why nothing seems to go the way we expected it to go after the winning.

When less than half the eligible population casts a ballot, and the numbers or so close that the “winner” is there only by virtue of a quarter of the People, just how much of the popular will is being represented?

Which leads me to my last one for now. “Well, they must know what they’re doing! After all, they’re the government!”

Yeah, about that. Here’s where that much-vaunted Common Sense shows its flaws in a serious way. I’m reminded of Deep Throat’s words to Woodward.  “Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House–the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

All sorts of things get tangled up in the symbols of office and the power of the office and who’s in office. The President is not a king, not a savior, not anything but this: he’s an employee. At the end of the day, he works for us (for me, for you) and as such he’s beholden to us. We don’t anoint him, we elect him to fill a job vacancy. Granted, it’s a hell of a job, and that means we really ought to be more careful when going over the resumés.  But it also means that when the president is screwing up and draws criticism, it is not anti-American, we are not criticizing the country, we are not being “disloyal” (which shouldn’t even be on the table). He’s an employee—we’re the country.

We need to look very closely at the catch-phrases by which we express our sentiment. Accept them at peril.

Not everyone can grow up to be president. More importantly, very few people really should be president. It’s a very specialized job, calling for such a wide range of expertise. We don’t do the necessary groundwork to come anywhere close to the reality than “anyone” can be president.

Because while anyone could conceivably win the election—being the president is another matter entirely.

I hope we have all learned that this time.

Now, go vote.