Maintaining a “free” country requires some often difficult work
Mowing the lawn is the one summer chore I detest the most. I’m not a huge fan of any summer chore, mind you, because, being summer, they almost always entail excessive perspiration, dehydration, and exhaustion. Lawn mowing is worst, though, because it kicks up dust and pollen, makes a mess of my shoes and pants cuff, and has to be repeated far too frequently, depending on the amount of rainfall. I can think of more pleasurable ways to spend my summer.
I have to admit, though, once I’m done I like the way the lawn looks. When I step to the kitchen window and look out first thing in the morning, I like seeing the bright green grass neatly trimmed; it makes me feel good about myself and my life. That image, once lodged in my mind, creates this sort of fantasy that mowing the lawn isn’t really all that bad. I do have help, after all, and unlike a golf course, we don’t have to mow daily. Our lawn is fairly flat, no steep grades like some have. If I were asked, I would likely recommend lawn mowing to almost everyone and I’d illustrate it with a picture like the one above. On an ultimately superficial level, lawn mowing is sexy, desirable, and one might claim it is a gesture of noble citizenship.
So why do I hate mowing the lawn so much?
Because the reality of the act is so very different from the fantasy. I’m not a 20-something attractive young woman out getting a tan while pushing the mower across the lawn. I’m a fat, diabetic old man who has to guard his exposure to the sun to avoid the skin cancer that ultimately killed my father. How mowing the lawn looks and feels holds little resemblance to the fantasy the picture creates.
Such deceptions, whether intentional, accidental or born of ignorance, are not limited to lawn mowing. We have created a society based on more than two thousand years of longing for a fantasy that doesn’t exist. From our form of government to our economic system of Capitalism to the social underpinnings of the Internet, we have bought into an idea that not only doesn’t exist but, given the basic fallacies of humanity, cannot exist without radically altering who and what we are. As a result, these institutions we’ve created are repeatedly failing. We try desperately to cling to them, insisting that they are what is best for our world and our planet, but ignoring the harm they are doing.
All these concepts of an ideal world stem from our basic desire to want everything to be fair while simultaneously wanting our own situation to be just a bit better than everyone around us. We keep searching for a “level playing field” without any significant regard to exactly what happens when that field holds no tilt in one direction or another. The metaphor from which we begin is flawed, thereby flawing all the theories we build upon it.
Conceptually, a “level playing field” is a sports reference from the early part of the 20th century. Football teams were accused of creating a home-field advantage over their rivals by building up one portion of the field over another. The team could then use that tilt to their advantage in calling and running plays. The move, though never actually documented, was considered very unsportsmanlike and eventually, regulations were enacted to regulate field construction.
Underlying the fairness of the issue, however, was a fact that outdoor sports fields cannot be perfectly flat. Flat fields hold water. College and professional sports teams pay engineers hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct fields that are within the stated guidelines while facilitating enough slope to drain the field of rainwater. Even with all the modern advantages available to engineers, there remain many places where standing water has the ability to affect the outcome of a game.
A level playing field is not good. While it sounds as though it creates a situation that is fair to both sides, a level field doesn’t drain water, creating an atmosphere both difficult and dangerous for the players. Maintenance is more difficult as soil sours in standing water and dying grass has to be continually replaced. A flat, soft field, even without standing water, results in more divots of greater depth during play, resulting in a greater frequency of bone and muscle injuries.
For well over 2,00 years now, the crux of Western Civilization has been a desire to be fair, at least to the extent of however “fair” was defined by the people in charge. Go all the way back to ancient Greece, somewhere around 750 BCE or so. This is the general starting point from whence Socratic thought emerged. Here are the beginnings of our sense of what government, economics, and society should be. Plato has not yet written Republic, but the foundation leading to that tome is being built.
Here, among these ancient philosophers, a “good” person was defined by four virtues: Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom. While those qualities still sound desirable, our modern definitions would clash with those held by Socrates and Plato. They were looking at people who could put a lid on their impulses, were responsible for their debts, honest in their dealings, and respectful of knowledge. Such were the qualities expected not only from the ruling class but from general society as well.
From this definition of good people arose the concept of a democratic republic, a capitalistic economy, and a stable, well-educated society. Within these constructs, life would be fair for “good” people. Of course, only men were included in that original thought, but at least there was a path of progression and development built into the system. Even slaves and immigrants could eventually become property owners and members of the Assembly. While we look backward and see glaring omissions of civil rights, there has always been an underlying desire for inclusiveness and equality. Even among Socratic thinkers the concept of a level playing field has always been present and shapes how we build our civilization.
Giving birth to equality requires intensive labor
Philosophical parallels between attempting to advance civilization and going through the challenges of giving birth are unmistakable. No, we didn’t actually ask a pregnant woman to mow the lawn. The photos were taken for illustration purposes only. The difficulties should be obvious, though. One could argue that, since that period of philosophical conception in Ancient Greece, humanity has gone through at least four to six periods of “birth,” creating civilizations that profoundly shift the manner in which we live and attempt to achieve equity and stability in government, economics, and society in general. [Whether one dates the Contemporary Age with the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution is a matter of deeper academic instruction.] Each iteration has sought to make life better on one level or another, to open doors to greater civility and equality. Yet, each has failed and this current child we’re nursing doesn’t appear to be in the best of health.
Our current situation comes from a bit more than 225-years gestating progression. Our sense of government being a representative democracy comes from the confluence of both the American and French Revolutions. Argue what you will, the two efforts together brought to Western Civilization a newly refined concept of what constitutes a fair and equitable government. The Industrial Revolution, occurring practically at the same time, reshaped our concept of Capitalism and economy. Here, the roots of the American Dream take hold, where anyone can own a business, buy a house, and have the opportunity to be successful. Society, of course, is a more fluid entity and we have to look at the Information Age and specifically the dawn of public access to the Internet in 1991 as the latest attempt to redefine our social construct to create a system more balanced and equitable.
Each of these movements has brought with it the promise of a “level playing field.” A representational democracy is supposed to give everyone an equal voice in how they are governed. Capitalism is supposed to create economic opportunity for everyone. The Internet promises to give everyone a chance to have their voice heard. Each system proposes to remove previous barriers that kept certain groups of people from being included. The concepts, in of themselves, are noble and their intentions are admirable.
What we find, though, is that actually trying to deliver on those promises is painful, difficult, and strained. We have spent over 225 years attempting to define what a person is. Even now, there are those among us who would prefer to not include women, people of color, those who were born outside our borders, those whose sexual orientation is different from their own, and those whose religious beliefs do not align with the generally accepted mythology. The fact that people of minority status of any kind must still yell, scream, picket, and demonstrate in an effort to secure their basic rights shows the severe deficiencies in the political system.
Economics has not fared any better. The gap between the super-elite rich and the poor has never been wider since the Middle Ages. The United States set new records for the wealth gap in 2014, and the massive gulf, both in terms of reserved value and economic opportunity, is at its widest for minorities. Over the past 50 or so years, it has been hoped that globalization might help distribute wealth so as to assist those third world countries struggling to cover basic needs for their populations. However, even some of globalization’s most ardent supporters are now questioning whether that approach is helping or hurting struggling economies. A Harvard University study done last year shows that a majority of those under the age of 30 no longer believe that Capitalism is the best economic system for moving forward.
The Internet held out the opportunity to make society better by removing all the barriers to entry for publication. Anyone can have a web page and say anything on it that they damn-well please. You believe the earth is flat? Create a website that supports your ignorance and it can compete right up there with all the science stating that you are wrong. Want to sell “essential” snake-oil to gullible cancer patients desperate for a cure? The Internet allows one to do that with practically no interference or oversight. Nothing can “level the playing field” quite like the Internet.
In the beginning, such an equitable opportunity was lauded as being a great thing for society. Consider for a moment these statements made during the early days of the Internet:
- Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use (5/13/1993)
What you propose here, ladies and gentlemen, may well represent nothing less than this nation’s last and best hope of providing something like a level socio-economic playing field for a true majority of its citizens.
- Records of the Future: At Your Fingertips (1/1/1995)
The Internet is going to bring a flat playing field to music. The difference between a major and an independent label will begin not to matter anymore. The smallest independent label could have just as wide a distribution – even wider internationally – as the largest major.
- Basic Questions Dog Electronic Road (5/1/1993)
To some extent, it’s a “Field of Dreams” business plan – if we build it, they’ll come.
- Press FAQ: Collaboration and Automatability, Sept 95 (9/1/1995)
It could be that some scientific field will be the first to be sufficiently disciplined to input its data not just as cool hypertext, but in a machine-readable form, allowing programs to wander the globe analyzing and surmising … The knowledge-engineering field has to learn how to be global, and the Web has to learn knowledge engineering, but in the end this might be a way in which again the scientific field leads the world into something very powerful, and a new paradigm shift.
- Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs (1/1/1994)
Watch for a nascent culture of virtual reality that underscores the ways in which we construct gender and the self, the ways in which we become what we play, argue about, and build. And watch for a culture that leaves new space for the idea that he or she who plays, argues, and builds might be doing so with a machine.
That’s an incredible amount of promise and opportunity, isn’t it? The optimism was so great that we could have listed hundreds of similar quotes. Some 20-plus years later, however, we’re trying to figure out how to patch the holes that have dimmed the promise of this great social hope. Contrasting the optimistic quotes above are the following touches of reality:
- Australian research finds that nearly half of all women report experiencing abuse or harassment online, and 76% of those under 30. The Guardian. (3/7/2016)
- The Internet has destroyed the Middle Class. Salon. Scott Imberg interviewing Jaren Lanier. (5/12/13)
- Empathy for other people has eroded. CNN. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan. (2/18/11)
- Online dating destroys our concept of love. The Guardian. Stuart Jeffries. (2/6/2012)
- Shopping malls are being killed by online shopping. Forbes. Tim Worstall. (1/4/2015)
The scenario grows worse from there. A professor at Purdue University, Sorin Adam Matei, finds evidence that social media was instrumental in the election of the 45th president of the United States. Another study shows 42 percent of kids have been bullied while online with one in four being verbally attacked more than once.
All of these challenges to our relatively young culture are based in attempts to level a playing field to such an extreme that we’ve opened the door to absolute pandemonium in the name of freedom. Again, this situation was not unforeseeable long before it happened. Plato, in Republic, warns: “Excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” There is such a thing as too much freedom. We have proven that we do not have the ability to restrain ourselves, therefore, the restraint must be imposed upon us if we are to survive.
I know, I know, no one likes the concept of restraining freedom. What we have to remember, though, is that as a culture our 225-year history renders us at about the development level of a three-year-old. Stop and think a moment about how much freedom one gives a pre-school three-year-old. The brighter, more inquisitive, more active, and more intelligent the child is, the more carefully its parents must watch after it. Left on its own, allowed to do whatever it pleases, the child will almost certainly hurt itself, or get hurt, just by exercising its natural curiosity. A three-year-old has no concept of temperance. If they see something that looks interesting, they go after it, even if that means crossing a busy street.
The United States is that three-year-old. Bright, energetic, full of ideas, promise, and potential, we have not yet learned to control our impulses, ponder the consequences before acting, or evaluate our desires in relation to the needs of others. We are capable of doing many good and wonderful things with the proper guidance, but we also have the ability to be destructive, hurtful, and mean when left unchecked. To return to our earlier metaphors, the lawn isn’t getting mowed and the weeds have taken over. Our level playing field has become a swamp in which nothing useful can live. We need to take some serious actions.
Mowing the lawn, pulling up weeds
If I’m not going to mow the lawn myself, and I try to get out of it every chance possible, I have to find someone to take my place, to do the work on my behalf; a representative, if you will. I have choices regarding who mows my lawn. I can choose someone who looks good but has no practical experience and enjoy the aesthetic of them walking back and forth across the grass while ignoring the sloppy job they’re doing and the places being missed. I might choose someone who is willing and can use the money but isn’t ideally suited for the job for one reason or another. I’ll be sure to call 911 quickly when they collapse from heat exhaustion. A third choice is to select someone who has mown lawns like mine before, someone who can handle the heat and is very good at listening to exactly how I want the grass to be cut. All three are options every time the grass grows too high. My choice not only determines how well the job will be done but demonstrates the degree to which I care about my lawn.
Being a citizen in this country of ours isn’t that much different. With each election, we have choices to make as to who will represent us in maintaining the broad lawn that is our system of laws and agencies. The work is not for the faint of heart. Sure, we can elect someone who looks good, but they’re likely to be sloppy, miss things, and not pay much attention to what actually needs to be done. We might elect someone whose intentions are noble but ineffective in their participation and unable to complete the tasks. Rarer are those who actually understand, know what the job entails, are effective in getting the work done, and do it precisely to our expectations.
Finding those people who can do the job well requires intense vetting, looking below the surface, rather than running with the first person who volunteers for the job. We have to actually stop what we’re doing for a minute and pay attention, participate in the conversation, and make our desires well known from the very outset. We cannot sit rocking back and forth on the front porch, thinking that we can point out errors in one corner when the representative has moved on to something else. Having a representative doesn’t mean we get to completely ignore what’s going on in our own yard. We have to be involved.
We have neglected our duty. In 2012, 51 million Americans eligible to vote were not even registered. As our population has grown, participation in the electoral process has declined. 62.77% of eligible registered voters cast votes in the 1960 presidential election. That number has steadily declined each presidential election since. Only 54.87% voted in the 2012 election and the 2016 election numbers were only slightly higher (source). As a result of our continued negligence, we are now faced with a mess that requires a massive overhaul if we are to save what we have worked so hard to obtain.
Pulling up weeds is difficult and hard work. Their root systems are deep and expansive. Pulling them up can often leave huge holes in the yard. Mowing over them is not sufficient; they grow right back while their root system grows increasingly invasive. Once weeds have been allowed in a yard, even just a few, removing them is a long and painful chore.
So it is with improving our country—difficult and likely painful. We’ve grown so accustomed to the weeds we’ve begun to think of them as necessary. The thought of removing them and filling in the holes is frightening and certainly not popular. I fully expect objections beginning with the phrase, “I have a right to …” to be bandied around with some fervor. Yet, if we are going to make a difference, if we are going to create a civilization that endures and is not more than a tiny blot in the eternal timeline, we need to do some weeding.
Let us start by reconsidering and perhaps redefining what freedom is. Freedom is not, never has been, cannot ever be the ability to do what one wants regardless of the consequences. Freedom is the liberty to live responsibly, self-identifying who and what one wants to be, pursuing those goals, and engaging in political, business, and social relationships to the benefit of all, directly avoiding any intentional harm or misrepresentation.
We need to ask ourselves, “What is Justice?” Plato, speaking for Socrates, is frequently quoted as saying that justice is “minding your own business.” While that sounds attractive to contemporary Libertarians, there is much lost in translation both in terms of language and culture. He is not saying that everyone should be free to do whatever the hell they want. Rather, that one must first recognize, self-identify if you will, who and what one is. If one is a musician, then justice is found in the unfettered ability to be that musician. If one contains the capacity to love, then justice is the ability to love as one will, who one will, without any hindrance.
What, then, is Injustice? We cannot define it as the absence of Justice for there is ground wherein neither Justice nor Injustice occurs. Rather, Injustice is that which acts or exists in such a way as to prohibit Justice on the part of another. For example, insomuch as healthcare is necessary for one to achieve Justice, the denial of healthcare would be Injustice. Forcing the homosexual to adhere to laws specifically designed to favor heterosexuals is Injustice. Imposing laws based upon the tenets of one mythology onto holders of a different mythology or no mythology is Injustice. Denying one’s ability to be is the greatest Injustice of all.
Those concepts of Justice and Injustice carry over to economics as well. Justice is selling a quality product at a fair price rather than raising the price to the limits of what the market might be forced to endure. Justice is paying one’s employees a living wage as opposed to utilizing minimum wage simply because the law allows such. Injustice is promoting a product one knows doesn’t work for the purpose of fleecing the gullible. Injustice is loaning a person money for a house then raising the interest rate beyond their ability to pay.
Beyond presumptive philosophical bantering, though, practical change is necessary if any metaphorical yard word is going to get done. Sitting around talking about how much we hate the weeds doesn’t do anything to stop the weeds from growing. We must get up and actually do something about the situation.
A cooperative effort toward a common goal
Someone could probably pay me to write books covering the details of how to improve upon the current structure of things and perhaps someone should. I’m happy to accept volunteers toward that action. In the mean time, however, please allow me to outline what has to happen to get us off this immoral lump that promotes injustice in the name of freedom. Mind you, I’m not likely to make any friends if I still have any at this point. We must abandon some concepts that are deeply rooted throughout our culture. Survival of our civilization and perhaps even that of our species requires us to take dramatic action.
Education must become the supreme priority
Much of what is failing America, and indeed the world, can be attributed to a rise in ignorance. We have devalued education on a real level despite verbal acclamations of its importance. We have failed to put our money where our mouth is, in the most literal sense. As a result, we have allowed for the unchecked growth of an anti-academic weed to the point that a “majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.”
Stratford Caldecott, the late editor and writer, summed up our current situation quite well:
“Today, in a world with instant access to Google, we rely on the electronic web to supply everything we need, from historical facts to word definitions and spellings as well as extended quotations. All of us who use a computer are aware of the shock of inner poverty that we suddenly feel when deprived (by a virus or other disaster) of our mental crutches even just for a day or a week. Plato is right: memory has been stripped from us, and all we possess is an external reminder of what we have lost, enabling us to pretend to a wisdom and an inner life we no longer possess in ourselves.”
― Stratford Caldecott,
We have reached a point where there is actually a surge in the number of people who believe that the earth is flat. If our educational system was as effective as we would like for it to be, such nonsense wouldn’t be possible. We have not only failed our children for multiple generations, but we have committed an injustice by failing to provide people with the basic skills that they need to exist and live good lives.
Understand, please, that simply taking a test and passing is no real measure of knowledge obtained nor the ability to use that information to reason one’s way through problems. No small amount of irony exists that our current society has the most open access to information ever, but at the same time may hold the least ability to reason than any generation in the past 300 years. Access to information does not equate to knowledge and the ability to obtain knowledge does not guarantee wisdom. Void of a broad repository of wisdom spread around the world, humanity lunges head-first into a state of decline leading to its own extinction.
Our very understanding of what composes education and how it is administered needs a complete workover. Specifically (and each of these points could be a chapter in that aforementioned book), the following adjustments need to be made unilaterally not just within the United States but across the world.
- Education must be considered a universal right, encompassing people of every gender, every race, and every religious belief. There can be no omission and no exception for as long as there are people who do not have access to education we allow the weeds of ignorance to exist and where ignorance exists injustice is inevitable. No interference on the part of politicians or theologians is acceptable. Every person, whether born to a posh New York penthouse or the deepest jungles of Southeast Asia, has an inalienable right to an education that must not be infringed on any account.
- Education must be free, all the way to the highest levels of academia. Too many minds are set to the side because they are reluctant to incur the debt necessary to obtain advanced degrees and pursue areas of knowledge and wisdom that might allow one to achieve the fullness of their existence. For millions of Americans to graduate from colleges and universities holding tens and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt is an injustice itself.
- Core curriculums must, at every level, insist upon the dominance of science and scientific theory over mythologies and traditions. There can be absolutely no room for allowing creationism or any other perverted tale of humanity to co-exist in the classroom. The scientific method should be ingrained at the earliest levels of education and children must be taught to apply that method in reaching their own conclusions.
- Arts education must be given just as much prominence as science and mathematics. Plato and the ancient Greeks before him understood this better than any society we’ve recently seen. He wrote in Republic: “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning,” and, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” That we have ignored the arts to the point that many children now receive absolutely no arts education in the classroom is an unforgivable crime against humanity.
- Within each subject, no matter what it might be, teachers must take every opportunity to impose upon students the skills of reason. Without the ability to reason, information is practically useless. We see this in the wealth of information lying dormant on the Internet. Everything one needs to obtain knowledge and wisdom is there, but it is useless to the point of more often being misused without the ability to apply reason to that information. For one to graduate from high school without having mastered the art of reason is for that graduate to be defenseless against the wit of others.
- Teaching must be regarded and rewarded as the highest profession obtainable. That many teachers live in poverty and looked down upon as second-class citizens is a symptom of our complete social depravity. Much is expected of teachers and they hold the power to sway the young mind in most any direction. If we are to prevent miseducation from occurring, as it sometimes does, then we must elevate the social regard of teaching, reward teachers above the heads of business and government. One of the most important passages of Republic is when Plato states:“You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken….Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas, for the most part, the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up? We cannot….
Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable, and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts….”
- Education must be fully funded not only by means of tuition but the classroom as well. For too many years we have handicapped teachers with insufficient resources for even the most basic pedagogy. Not only should every classroom have the basic supplies of paper and writing utensils, but the most advanced aids in helping those for whom learning is not a straightforward matter of reading and recitation. Classrooms must be funded to fully address the range of educational needs for children who have too long been marginalized because of behavior precipitated by mental health conditions for which the child is not responsible. Never should any child or teacher be in want for resources within the classroom.
If we cannot commit to a full and complete overhaul of the world’s educational system, then there is little need in proceeding any further. Without sufficient education, we do not have the intellectual capital to adequately improve our culture on other levels. We suffer now with the weeds of ignorance choking out the voice of reason at the highest levels of government. The world’s greatest deficit is in sustaining wisdom. We have little choice but to address this situation with the same panic and alarm we would a fire in our own house. Our need is critical and there is no viable argument allowing delay.
Truth must be restored to the center of justice
Weeds have a way of getting in and taking root no matter how often we might try to eliminate them. One of those weeds against which people of reason have fought for millennia is that element which attempts to deny Truth or warp a truth to fit their own agenda. The weed even dogged ancient Greece, prompting Plato to make a statement that seems frighteningly accurate for the contemporary situation:
“Strange times are these in which we live when old and young are taught falsehoods in school. And the person that dares to tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and fool”
If we are to teach, then we must teach Truth. If we are to teach Truth, then we must also live by Truth. There can be no compromise against the Truth nor can we allow it to become diluted by irrational thought. The necessity for Truth precedes any claim to freedom of speech for speech that does not contain Truth is itself an injustice and cannot be tolerated in a just and reasonable society.
Here is where many part ways with my reasoning and you should know that I understand the difficulties of what I am about to advocate. I have wrestled myself with this concept because we have been taught from the very foundation of our beginnings that the freedom of speech exceeds all. Tyranny flourishes where people are prevented from expressing themselves, specifically from questioning those in positions of leadership and authority. Surely, there can be no abridgment of the right to challenge dictators, fascists, and oligarchs.
Yet, anytime one makes a challenge based upon falsehood, misinformation, or in a deliberate attempt to obfuscate fact one commits an injustice against society. Lying cannot be protected speech. Words containing events that did not happen and quotations by people who never existed must be clearly identified either as works of fiction, satire, or parody if they are to avoid doing harm, even though that harm might be unintentional or unforeseeable.
Deliberate lies made in an attempt to hide the Truth are the most egregious forms of speech and cannot claim protection. There are no excuses, no justifications, and no defense for such mistruths; they have no legitimate place in society and no society based on justice can exist as long as lies are tolerated and fail to be punished. Lying cannot help but be the primary exception to any guarantee of free speech because lies themselves are the antithesis of free speech.
Curtailing free speech in any form on any level is a very frightening concept. One would think, with good reason and sufficient history as an example. that limits to speech lead to enslavement. Such philosophies are not incorrect. However, precipitating and tolerating lies have the exact same effect and outcome. What just person among us would have imagined a mere twelve months ago that foreign entities would collude to spread false information for the express purpose, with malice aforethought, to effect the outcome of a presidential election? Yet, current evidence suggests, if not absolutely proves, that such crimes were perpetrated in both the US and French elections.
Thomas Jefferson and the other framers of the United States Constitution could not have possibly envisioned a day wherein false information could so easily be distributed and given credence next to legitimate and factual news. Libel and slander laws, as weak as they are, address only matters of personal defamation and differ dramatically between the United States and other countries. More difficult to extinguish are lies that would seem to have no direct target but which do harm to the greater population in general, such as the anti-vaccination movement that perpetuates proven misinformation regarding the effectiveness and safety of inoculations. Truth in advertising laws, managed in the United States by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) address deliberate deception on the part of companies selling a product but have little sway when someone on the Internet makes an unproven claim about essential oils curing various illness. Instead, it is left up to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine whether such claims are true, and resources for chasing down such claims are severely limited.
If we are to re-establish Truth as the basis for justice and society, we must brace ourselves for severe actions that are likely to prove unpopular during the interim transition. Our current culture is too steeped in greed and too thirsty for power to let it regulate its own way back toward Truth. We must give our society a hard and definitive push with the following steps.
- Politicians, more than any other group, must be held accountable for their words. We have become too lax in allowing politicians to make any claim they wish, especially while on the campaign trail. The problem has become so severe that an Ohio court even ruled that lies in political ads are acceptable. More often than not, the free speech protections are used to defend those lies. We must remove that protection. Deliberate and knowing lies on the part of leadership gives way to even more lies with even greater harm by those in government agencies under them. We cannot tolerate such a regime. We must strip politicians of any protection against prosecution for lying and, when shown to have deliberately lied, provide for their immediate removal from office with complete disqualification for running for office in the future. Once a truth-only policy is established for elected officials, a similar policy must be enacted for all government employees regardless of position or placement.
- Federal oversight agencies, such as the FDA, FTC, and the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) must be given broader authority and resources to deal with and eliminate deliberate lies and misstatements made toward either consumers or the government. This must include the ability to remove any information from any website that is patently false and/or deliberately misleading. Such oversight would include personal, non-business websites, blogs, and other sources of information which frequently distribute otherwise unregulated information. Comments on articles and through social media services such as Twitter would also fall subject to such regulation. While removal of such information should be sufficient to reduce the amount of intentional misinformation, laws must be strengthened to allow for severe fines in cases of continued abuse.
- Social media sites, especially as they take on a larger role in the publication of information, must be held responsible for the truthful content of that information and given broad power to remove any information that is untrue or can be proven untrue using the scientific method or the general application of established fact. This would include statements made against the character and/or actions of other people, whether public or private, and the perpetuation of known myths previously refuted through scientific means.
- Persons and/or entities whose content and/or statements are challenged regarding their truthfulness shall maintain the right to defend their statements but shall also carry the burden of proof to establish any claim of factual accuracy against any charge of lying based on other facts previously established through other sources. Content that is in dispute cannot be publicly disseminated through any means until proven to not be false.
- Persons who participate in the perpetuation of established myth, such as flat-earth propaganda or anti-vaccination prevarication, must be held responsible, collectively, for damages arising from their deceit. Where no specific harm is done by the misinformation, removal of the lies is sufficient. However, when dishonesty can be proven to have resulted in actual injuries, such as an increase in otherwise preventable disease, those who helped to spread the misinformation must be held at least partially responsible for having perpetuated the myth.
Throughout this crackdown on false information, we must be careful and deliberate to maintain the ability to honestly and effectively challenge what is currently held to be true. What is perceived to be fact is not always fact as our understanding of nature, science, physics, and humanity evolves. No one should be punished, demeaned or in any other way disparaged for rightfully positing a challenge or justifiable alternative view or reconsideration of generally accepted authority. However, such challenges should come with a preponderance of evidence as established through the scientific method or the thorough documentation of fact. Hearsay, the personal experience of a single individual, nor anecdotal evidence is not sufficient previously stated and generally accepted facts.
While these steps are unquestionably severe and definitely deserve considerable debate, dishonesty is a weed no culture can survive. Corruption and injustice are inevitable anywhere dishonesty is allowed to survive. Dishonest voices do not have an inalienable right to be heard. Intentionally making statements that do harm to others, whether the harm is anticipated or not, cannot be tolerated by a just society. As much as we value free speech, we must limit that liberty to those expressions that are honest and truthful if we are to live good and free lives. I see no other workable alternative.
Everyone must be able to live equitably
Greed. Selfishness. Corruption. Slavery. I’m not likely to make many friends when I say these are the basic underpinnings of Western Capitalism as it currently exists. Greed and selfishness are the drivers. Corruption is the methodology. Slavery is the means. Remove even one of those aspects and Capitalism morphs into something different, something more equitable and less damaging to humanity.
If one asks a conservative, or for that matter, most so-called “progressives,” they will adamantly defend Capitalism as the only real game in town. Even the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, ferociously defended Capitalism during her first debate with Senator Bernie Sanders. Capitalism has millions of apologists out there willing to overlook its faults. At a superficial level, Capitalism paints a pretty picture of one’s ability to achieve wealth and participate in an economic system that rewards hard work.
Looking more deeply, however, one finds that Capitalism is ultimately like a dandelion: children may refer to them as flowers and enjoy the gaiety of blowing the white puffs and watching them float through the air whereas adults, being responsible for actually taking care of the yard, see them as weeds that must be removed if any real grass has a chance of growing. Like dandelions, Capitalism spreads quickly and easily with practically no effort, but in doing so it brings with it a rash of undesirable consequences that have been well documented over the past 150 years.
While Karl Marx’s criticism of Capitalism is perhaps the best known, there’s little question that he missed the mark when it comes to providing a solution. We watched as the former Soviet Union attempted to implement Marx’s economic reform and the resulting disaster is something from which Eastern Europe still struggles to escape.
On a more contemporary level, however, we have seminal works from scholars such as David Schweickart, whose concepts of Economic Democracy have been stirring in sociological circles since 1996, the late Elinor Olstrum’s Nobel Prize-winning studies on the economic benefits of what is referred to as “the Commons,” and Erik Olin Wright, whose surprisingly popular book, Envisioning Real Utopias, was a shocking best seller in 2010. For all the things I don’t have time nor space to include in this medium I strongly recommend reading not only the linked books but other titles by these authors as well.
For his part, Dr. Wright lists ten criticisms of Capitalism that resonate perhaps more strongly now, nearly a decade after he wrote them. Once he made us painfully aware of the systemic failures happening under our noses, we became shockingly more aware of those problems and have seen an increase in resistance to and demonstrations against these issues. Dr. Wright is, unsurprisingly, an academic and his list takes a very academic tone. Rather than just doing the old copy and paste routine, let’s see if I can translate those criticisms into the vernacular. Parenthetical comments are mine.
- Capitalism establishes reinforces a class structure that inevitably leads to human suffering. (Hence the growing number of people living below the poverty line.)
- Capitalism prevents the majority from pursuing and realizing their potential. (Concentration of power and wealth block access for the majority.)
- Capitalism reduces personal freedom and autonomy. (We must work more while making less, creating increased dependence on the corporation.)
- Capitalism blocks equal access to those materials and resources necessary for life and justice. (Think that if there is not enough regional demand for a product or services to produce a profit, that product or service does not exist in that region.)
- Capitalism is significantly inefficient. (Products are manufactured on the other side of the planet from where the intended consumer resides in an effort to create greater profit.)
- Capitalism damages the environment. (Profit comes before environmental responsibility.)
- Capitalism encourages materialism. (We must always buy more for the economy to move forward.)
- The expansive needs of a Capitalistic market erode values. (Our concepts of family, charity, and humility all die under the withering need to buy more.)
- Capitalism corrodes community. (I didn’t need to translate that one. Perfect example: Wal-Mart in rural America. )
- Capitalism limits democracy. (The most obvious example of the Citizens United decision was handed down in direct support of bolstering Capitalism.)
What should frighten us is that Dr. Wright’s list is far from being exhaustive. The problems caused by continued rampant Capitalism are far reaching and increasingly troublesome. Capitalism supports the wealthiest one percent of the population in their desire to increase their wealth. Capitalism views the poor as blights on civilization.
Our long standing relationship with Capitalism stems from a fundamental belief in Western Philosophy that individual rights dominate over social responsibility. I am more important than anything and everything else. Most recently, we have seen this in the rise of Libertarian politics through the so-called “Tea Party” wing of the GOP. Almost to a person, proponents of that philosophy fuss and fume about their tax dollars going for things that don’t directly benefit them in proportion to the amount of tax they pay. They lack any fundamental sense of social responsibility and see no reason for them to participate in programs and/or initiatives that assist anyone else.
In a word, Western Philosophy is historically selfish. Capitalism encodes that selfishness and then grows it with a heaping helping of greed.
I do not propose nor endorse an economic revolution, mind you. While the need for change is severe, much of that change must be organic in nature or else it cannot be effective. For example, the Commons works well only when the people involved thoroughly understand the concept of the Commons and work together in its management. Until a greater level of education is achieved, the adaptation of the Commons is necessarily limited. One cannot force wholesale economic change onto a population; again, the former Soviet Union proved that fact alarmingly well. Progressive change is necessary.
What I am about to suggest is likely to frustrate those who want more detail. Once more, a book would be a better medium for relating such a volume of information. I fear that the next list might well raise more questions than it does provide answers. Visiting the links provided should help fill in the gaps to some degree.
For people to live equitably, to thrive, to excel, to realize their potential both on a personal level and in relation to society, they need an economy that works for them, not against them. Every aspect of life, both economic and political, must be designed to provide equal access, equal opportunity, and support equal participation. I firmly believe the following are among the most critical steps to take in achieving that goal.
- A living wage. You can get off that bullshit about companies having to raise prices to cover increased personnel costs right now. The minimum wage was last raised in 2009 based on the cost of living for 2007. The cumulative rate of inflation between 2007 and 2017 is 18.1% (using data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics). However, actual purchasing power has diminished by 9.6% since 2009, meaning that the same person who was employed at $7.25 an hour in 2009 would need something north of $12 an hour today just to maintain the same level of poverty. To actually produce a living, non-poverty income would require a wage of at least $15 and that wage would need to be flexible in adjusting not only to changing rates of inflation but variations in the value of the dollar and the general health of the economy. Insomuch as wage inequity disproportionately affects women and racial minorities, failure to provide for a living wage generates a gross injustice against roughly 64% of the population.
- An end to for-profit control of necessary services. We’re talking electric, gas, water, phone, Internet, and healthcare. These are the basic services necessary for anyone to survive and flourish at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To the extent that, in many areas, these services are controlled by for-profit corporations, the cost of basic living exceeds what many people are able to afford. In fact, by some accounts, the a couple who both earn minimum wage and is paying $350 a month housing (and good luck finding that in most markets) and spending $250 a month on transportation (including car payment, insurance, fuel, and routine maintenance), has roughly $600 left for the remainder of expenses. While that might sound significant, one can likely deduct a third of that for the electric bill. If one requires natural gas service, there’s another $50 a month gone. Municipal water typically runs around $30 a month while phone and basic internet service are going to carve another $100 out of pocket. That leaves $220 for groceries. Oh, but wait, what about health insurance? Yeah, sorry, they probably can’t afford that if they plan on eating.Utilities are one place where alternatives that include Commons and cooperatives can help reduce these cost and reduce the economic strain of just trying to stay alive. Alternative energy solutions such as rooftop solar arrays can make sense for as much as two-thirds of the continental United States. Where solar energy might not make sense, rooftop wind turbines and other alternative fuel generating options hold the potential to help give people more control over the cost of their energy.
Phone and internet services are more challenging as they require vast networks with constant maintenance and upgrade costs. That doesn’t mean they should be for-profit corporations, though. They still have an obligation to make their services available without pushing the limits of market tolerance. Communication is an absolute necessity. Many employers only accept online applications, requiring both access to the internet and the ability to accept a phone call before an interview can even happen. Current IRS code holds over 30 different non-profit categories, including farming cooperatives. Phone and internet providers could potentially fit under the 501(c)(5) or could warrant an extension of the IRS code to create a new category. Either way, pushing prices for basic services to the limits of consumer tolerance is ultimately unjust and marginalizes millions of people.
Healthcare is a multifaceted topic that appears on this list more than once. There’s no question that healthcare is a necessity. Our ability to maintain a viable level of wellness is critical to our ability to exist in society. So why, then, are some of those most expensive and unreasonable pricing structures ever imagined attached to this critical need? That anyone would profit off the illness and disability of others is humane. Hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical concerns of every kind, and even pharmacies themselves must have the profit requirement removed if they are to genuinely operate in the best interest of the general population.
I realize I’m just skimming the surface of this topic. Books already exist exploring the alternatives for each industry. The time has come to start taking those concepts much more seriously.
- Thoroughly update the national infrastructure. Senator Bernie Sanders, Vermont (I), made infrastructure an inescapable topic during the 2016 presidential race, but outside of his insistence on the topic, it has gotten very little attention as either an economic or political necessity. Yet, the state of the nation’s infrastructure is so critical that it was identified in 2010 as a national security concern. Perhaps the most obvious statement highlighting the decayed condition of our infrastructure is the poisoning of the Flint, Michigan water supply in 2014. While that situation has received national news coverage, it still is not completely resolved. Meanwhile, similar problems exist in other cities including East Chicago and New Orleans.When President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, he put $25 billion toward the creation of the nation’s interstate highway system. That was the last time the federal government put any serious funding toward pushing the nation’s infrastructure forward. Now, even that interstate system, on which our economy is highly reliant, is in shambles, requiring billions in funding from states just to patch the holes that occur far too frequently. The time has come for us to completely revamp the system.
What is important in this conversation is that we not look at the matter in terms of simply patching the existing structures. We need to replace and update everything from sewer systems to airports, transit systems, dams and levees, schools, and the rail system. For many, the systems are still attempting to operate on equipment from the mid-1900s, making maintenance a nightmare. To the extent that we continue to ignore these problems and push them off on state and local municipalities, we commit an injustice against every person who utilizes that infrastructure. We need to look to the future, invoking new and emerging technologies and even creating new technologies in anticipation of solving problems before they occur.
Projects like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop need to be embraced and extended across the nation in the same way the interstate system did in 1956. Highways need to be refitted to best serve driverless cars. Airports need complete overhauls to not only make air travel safer but eliminate many of the non-weather related delays that currently plague the system. Repeated polls by both the Gallup and Pew organizations show that Americans support increased funding for infrastructure projects. That we are sitting here in 2017 without even a serious proposal on the table is shameful.
- Dramatically increase worker ownership where possible. This is a significant plank in the platform of Economic Democracy and one which Senator Sanders specifically mentions in his election-year book, Our Revolution. Specifically, Senator Sanders states:
The truth is that we can and we must develop new economic models create jobs and increase wages and productivity. Instead of giving huge tax breaks to corporations that ship our jobs to China and other low-wage countries, we need to provide assistance to workers who want to purchase their own business by establishing worker-owned cooperatives and majority owned employee stock ownership places (ESOPs). Study after study has shown that employee ownership increases employment, increases productivity, increases sales, and increases wages in the United States.(p. 260)
We no longer can entertain an economy where profits are held in the hands of one percent of the population while the other ninety-nine percent struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Those who are responsible for the work being done by a company need and deserve a stronger say in how that business is operated and greater participation in the profit their work generates.
Of specific interest is the concept of “commoning,” sharing ownership and responsibility in everything that involves common assets. This social justice-based economy involves people not just in their primary professions but in other goods and services critical to their lives and equitably distributes profits in such a way as to prevent an unnecessary concentration of wealth among those at the top of an organization. While the emphasis of the movement has been focused primarily on environmental concerns, the concepts are potentially applicable to almost any corporate environment with just a little tweaking.
What is certain is that we cannot continue in this oligarchical society where workers are treated as a disposable commodity. Such an approach lays the foundation for the type of violent revolution most would prefer to avoid. Worker dissatisfaction is high but the solution is sitting right there in front of us. We simply have to engage it.
Okay, I’m getting wordy in my need to explain my positions. If I continue in that manner we’re going to be at 30,000 words before I’m done. So, for the remainder of economic issues, please excuse me for being necessarily brief.
- Elimination and close monitoring of both gender and racial wage gaps. While moderate strides have been made in this area, surveys show that only Asian men are earning as much or more than white men. Everyone else is earning less. There is no democracy, there is no justice as long as this situation is allowed to persist. Corporations have proven they cannot be trusted to do “the right thing.” Strict federal oversight and enforcement are necessary.
- Healthcare must be treated as a right with a single-payer payment system covering everyone. Every first world industrial country has a healthcare system that covers all its citizens except for the United States. There is absolutely no excuse for this short of outright stubbornness and greed. Mostly greed. We need to get off our asses on this issue, pass a health care law that guarantees no one in the US will ever have to face bankruptcy in order to stay alive, and ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights so as to guarantee health care to future generations.
- Transition to a four day work week. There are two primary reasons for making this transition in the economy. First, the shorter work week is healthier and more productive. Workers face higher stress when there is no time during their week to attend to non-work necessities such as family health care, legal matters, and home maintenance. Second, we need more time for artistic pursuits. Too many people have had to shelve artistic interest and talents in the name of keeping food on the table. The benefits of maintaining participation in the arts throughout our lifetime are innumerable, especially as we get older. Once again, the US is behind European countries in doing what is right and just for its people.
- Increased personal and family leave. Research shows that of 41 industrialized nations, the United States is the only one with no mandated family leave. Zero. We are not putting families first with this attitude. We are not a just society with this kind of expectation from workers. Neither do employees in the US have any statutory right to vacation or personal leave. This compares poorly to the European Union which mandates at least 20 vacation days a year, with some countries increasing that to 30. We are unfulfilled and unable to reach our potential without sufficient time away from our work.
- Strict regulation of banking and finance. Republicans, emboldened by the rhetoric of the 45th president, are eager to strip away many of the safeguards and regulations put in place after the 2008 recession. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act led to that financial disaster. The Dodd-Frank legislation responded to that situation with moderate oversight, but now Congress wants to strip away that regulation as well. This cannot help but lead to another horrible financial crisis and it is the American people who ultimately lose the most every time this happens. Banks are not too big to fail. We need to plug this hole and make sure it stays that way.
- Shift investment strategy toward alternative fuel sources. Fossil fuel subsidies are not only bad for the environment but they’re inefficient as well. The G20 has already made a commitment to end such subsidies, but the US is, once again, dragging its feet. We need to end this ridiculousness and move those investments to more sustainable and less damaging energy sources such as solar and wind power with an eye toward new energy developments. We know this. We’ve had the research in front of us for years. Justice demands that we take action.
- Subsidize the transition of unused commercial properties. Urban landscapes across the country are littered with the shells of former shopping malls and other retail outlets that have gone out of business. Let’s stop pretending that large-scale retail as we once knew it is ever coming back. It’s not. Rather than letting these facilities sit and rot, however, we should subsidize their transition to other uses such as affordable housing, new business incubators, and urban farming cooperatives. There are many ways to utilize this valuable real estate that can generate revenue and employee more people in underserved areas.
- Demonstrably increase funding for the Arts. The National Governors Association has already published research demonstrating the economic benefits of investing in Arts programs. Yet, we have a sitting president who campaigned on eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. Supporting that attitude shows the depth and deprivation of our collective ignorance. Social justice relies heavily on the Arts and public support for artists themselves. No artist should ever face starvation or homelessness. No community of any size should be without artists. The benefits were established no less than 3,000 years ago. If ancient Greeks understood the economic benefit of the Arts, why are we so oblivious to those benefits now?
- End corporate tax avoidance. Really. Shut the doors. Corporations should never be allowed to pay anything less than ten percent in taxes and then only when they have re-invested heavily in their employees and communities. Corporations don’t need a free ride. All the bellyaching about “trickle down” economics has proven to be nothing more than hot air. The time has come to require corporations to actively participate and contribute to the societies of which they are a part. No dodging.
- Make environmental policy economic policy. Just as we have ignored our nation’s infrastructure, we have all but abandoned our nations environment and natural resources. Such short-sighted policies are killing us. More than just a matter of dealing with the issue of climate change, we need to take an aggressive stance on issues such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, and over fishing are just as critical to our long-term health and well being. Ignoring these issues is an injustice not only against ourselves but for future generations for whom life on this planet inevitably becomes unsustainable.
Do you get the feeling this list could go on forever? It almost could. The economic issues in need of complete revision are almost too many to count. Any one of the issues mentioned here could easily be split into other related issues as well. The problems are severe and real solutions require a radical change in how we think about business and the economy as a whole. These are weeds that threaten our very existence. Pulling them up and replacing them with sustainable sod is the only way to continue. Proceeding with unchecked Capitalism is certain doom.
We must demand cooperative and responsive leadership
In Apology, Plato writes, “The State is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the State and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me.”
Thanks largely to the ubiquity of social media, I think Plato would find himself in heavy though perhaps inferior company among 21st-century citizens. “Arousing, persuading, and reproaching” politicians is a full-time effort for many. In fact, the ability to marshal hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of voters to contact their representatives is so strong that some members of Congress and Parliaments now turn off their phone services in the face of overwhelming comment. Such action presents a problem as the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” When members of Government shut themselves off from public comment, they are, effectually, breaking the law.
Does such redress actually make a difference, though? Research suggests that it doesn’t. In 2014, Princeton University Professor of Politics, Martin Gilens, and Northwestern University Professor of Decision Making, Benjamin I. Page, conducted research that reveals public efforts to sway political opinion aren’t achieving the results we might prefer. Gilens and Page write:
In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
There you have it—we are not a democracy. We’ve known that for some time, but having it quantified in such a way drives the point home in a way that packs more of a sting. As long as we were operating off anecdotal evidence we could easily dismiss the idea that we aren’t the shining beacon we proclaim ourselves to be. Gilens and Page confirm our fears, though, and leave us little ethical room to hide.
In 2015, following the United States Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling on corporate campaign finance, former president Jimmy Carter responded to radio host Thom Hartman’s assertion that the decision is a “violation of principles of democracy,” with the following statement:
It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over. … The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody’s who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.
If the US is an oligarchy, then that makes us the same as, oh, Russia. No wonder they were interested in hacking our presidential election. We have so much in common now. [Said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.]
Should we really be surprised, though? Has the United States ever truly been the Representative Democracy that it claims to be? Despite what most of us were taught about the country being founded on the principals of freedom and inclusion, the bare facts show a much different picture. “Freedom” in the US has always been the domain of the rich and the privileged. The rest of us “common” folk have no regard and are valuable only to the extent we are able to do the work that results in the rich remaining so.
David Morris, writing for the website On The Commons, reminds us of the opinions expressed by our earliest leaders:
The founding fathers minced no words about their distrust of the masses. Our second President, John Adams warned, “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy…” Our third President, Thomas Jefferson insisted, “Democracy is nothing more than mob rule.” Our fourth President, James Madison, the Father of the Constitution declared, “Democracy is the most vile form of government.”
In his argument against the direct election of Senators Connecticut’s Roger Sherman advised his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention, “The people should have as little to do as may be about the government. They lack information and are constantly liable to be misled.” They agreed. Senators would be elected by state legislatures. And they created the Electoral College to shield the Presidency from a direct vote of the people as well.
Evidence of how the oligarchs manipulate the Electoral College has never been more obvious than with our most recent presidential election. The 2.8 million-vote gap between the candidates should have elected the Democratic candidate in any reasonable version of democracy. Manipulation of the system, however, did just the opposite. Through the convoluted Electoral College system, the Republican candidate walked away with a win he in no way deserved.
Presidential elections aren’t the only ones being manipulated to work against the will of the majority, though. A well-entrenched tradition of gerrymandering congressional districts has long swayed voting to produce the results desired by whatever oligarchs might be pulling the purse strings at any given time. People like you and I, the working middle class and lower, have never really held the weight of power that democratic elections supposedly promised us.
Our vision from inside the country is obscured by a mandated sense of loyalty and patriotism. Anyone who fails to extol the virtues of “our democracy” is labeled as unpatriotic, a charge we continue to hear from the 45th president as he continues to utilize social media to berate challengers.
If we were to see ourselves through the eyes of those outside our country, we would hold a different opinion. In a 2014 WIN/Gallup poll of 66,000 people across 65 countries, 24 percent of respondents, by far the largest percentage in the category, rated the United States as the biggest threat to world peace. Pakistan came in second at eight percent and China was third with six percent. While many of the negative votes unsurprisingly came from Middle East countries that have directly felt the aggression of the United States, 37 percent of Mexicans and 17 percent of Canadians feel that the US is a dangerous neighbor.
Our reputation is perpetrators of violence is all too-well deserved. Presidents have repeatedly asserted that the US has the right to utilize force wherever and whenever it feels necessary in order to defend its position, investments, and interest. This stance is in defiance of the United Nations Charter, which we signed, stating that member countries, “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” We repeatedly and continually bully other nations, including the European Union, with the threat of our overwhelming military force if they do not do our bidding. This has been a standard “negotiating” tactic of the US since World War II.
There are severe consequences to our actions. In his article on the refugee crisis, Philosopher and MIT Linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky, holds us accountable for a portion of our sins:
The US-UK invasion of Iraq alone displaced some 4 million people, of whom almost half fled to neighboring countries. And Iraqis continue to flee from a country that is one of the most miserable on earth after a decade of murderous sanctions followed by the sledgehammer blows of the rich and powerful that devastated the ruined country and also ignited a sectarian conflict that is now tearing the country and the region to shreds.
There is no need to review the European role in Africa, the source of more refugees, now passing through the funnel created by the French-British-US bombing of Libya, which virtually destroyed the country and left it in the hands of warring militias. Or to review the US record in Central America, leaving horror chambers from which people are fleeing in terror and misery, joined now by Mexican victims of the trade pact which, predictably, destroyed Mexican agriculture, unable to compete with highly subsidized US agribusiness conglomerates.
The reaction of the rich and powerful United States is to pressure Mexico to keep US victims far from its own borders, and to drive them back mercilessly if they manage to evade the controls. The reaction of the rich and powerful European Union is to bribe and pressure Turkey to keep pathetic survivors from its borders and to herd those who escape into brutal camps.
Among citizens, there are honorable exceptions. But the reaction of the states is a moral disgrace, even putting aside their considerable responsibility for the circumstances that have compelled people to flee for their lives.
This is the country we created. We are responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the actions our leaders take on our behalf. When presidents and Congress violate international law, they implicate us all because we are the ones who continue to provide them with the power from which they govern.
The ground around us is evolving, though not necessarily in ways we might prefer. The US is losing both power and influence on the international stage, a situation that began some twenty years ago but recently accelerated with the election of the 45th president. What was labeled the Quantified Society in 2015 has ushered in a reality where cameras are always on, someone is always listening and/or watching, and we have willingly relinquished our privacy while simultaneously screaming about privacy. Our least healthy states (quality of life) are also our poorest and there isn’t even a program in place that adequately addresses that situation.
In his book The Failure of Presidential Democracy, J. J. Linz dismantles the myth of presidential effectiveness and warns of the ability of such a leader to steer a country toward anti-democratic actions and policies. While his examples were based upon the history of Latin American countries, we are now in a position where the US president exhibits the same warning signs: advocating violence, attempts to limit civil rights, and questioning the validity of elections (see the president’s repeated statements regarding the number of illegal votes cast for his opponent). Someone wake Kenny Loggins—we’re on that highway to the danger zone.
There is no way to respond to this situation, to the destruction of any sense of democracy, without one’s ideas being labeled as radical and possibly even unAmerican. Yet, history holds us responsible for the actions of our country. Just as one might hold the people of Germany responsible for the rise of Hitler and the atrocities committed under his administration, we are no less guilty of all the crimes against humanity the United States commits, both domestically and internationally. A radical response is necessary. After considerable study and research, I’ve come to the following conclusions:
- The Electoral College must be eliminated. The idea sounded good back in the 18th century and has withstood debate even within the past year. The concept that electors would balance rural with urban populations is not lost on me. However, there have been two elections in the past twenty years where the candidate winning the popular vote was not elected president. In both cases, the result was an inferior leader. That the Electoral College would have the ability to counter the will of the electorate at large is not just anti-democratic, but insulting. How can it be any wonder that so many people feel too disenfranchised to vote? We need to consign the Electoral College to antiquity where it belongs.
- Gerrymandering of Congressional districts must be outlawed. Gerrymandering is making big news again as a new case currently before the Supreme Court has the potential to significantly change the way in which Congressional districts are determined. Any way one slices it, gerrymandering is a manipulation of the principals of democracy. We’ve known it was wrong for generations, but never have we made a significant enough stand to force an end to the practice. Now is the time to make that stand. Politicians don’t get to draw their own districts or define for themselves who they represent. Wiping gerrymandering from the book brings significant change to the balance of powers in Congress and state legislatures.
- Term limits must be instituted on members of Congress. Congressman John Conyers has served in Congress for over 50 years. Thad Cochran and Don Young have both served over 44 years. Congress was never intended to be a career move. What we’ve seen over the years is that the longer a Representative or Senator has served, the more likely they are to have re-election campaigns wholly funded by special interest and their voting record reflects the desires of those special interests. While there is a legitimate argument to be made for having some experience on Capitol Hill, the near-impossibility of unseating an incumbent Congressperson is undemocratic and dangerous. Term limits remove that danger and make Congress more responsible to their constituents rather than special interest. We’ve been talking about this issue since I was a child. Time to get on the stick and take action.
- Corporate donations to elections must be eradicated. We’ve mentioned the Supreme Court’s 2015 Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate donations to election campaigns. While millions of Americans howled in protest, Congress has done absolutely nothing to actually resolve the issue and doesn’t show any signs of changing that position anytime soon. Americans need to force their hand through whatever peaceful means prove effective, including disrupting of Town Hall meetings and re-election campaigns. Congress is not motivated to give up the corporate payday worth millions of dollars. We need to remind them who is in charge.
- Limit lobbying to non-profit public service organizations and individual citizens. The ability to “redress” members of Congress is a sacred right guaranteed by the First Amendment. However, as Gilens and Page point out, corporate and special interest groups have made it virtually impossible for the voice of the average constituents to be heard. Even when it is, members of Congress pay little attention to the demands of their constituents. While a complete ban on lobbying would be unconstitutional, there is no good reason to not limit access to not-for-profit organizations who speak directly on behalf of a group of citizens as well as, always, individual citizens themselves. Complete removal of corporate funding from the legislative process has to be a priority.
- Institute a Congressional vote of no confidence option against the president. The United States Constitution is unique in the manner in which it allows a president to be impeached. The process is lengthy, expensive, and can come at a considerable political cost when executed in a partisan manner. What is ultimately disturbing about the impeachment process is that while the House of Representatives might vote to impeach a president, that vote has no real power behind it unless the Senate then brings specific charges against the president and votes for removal. The process is long and has, to date, failed to produce any real change. [President Nixon resigned prior to impeachment proceedings being completed.] Giving Congress the ability to issue a vote of no confidence could resolve that issue. When a president is mishandling the duties of the executive, action needs to be firm and immediate, not long and dragged out. A vote of no confidence, modeled after that instituted by Germany, would demand a vote on the matter within days of the motion being filed. A new election would follow in an abbreviated time frame should the vote pass. This possibility makes the president more responsive to the electorate and less to special interests and/or party agendas.
- Allow for the president and/or Supreme Court to call for intermediate Congressional elections. What’s good for one branch of government is good for the other. One aspect of government we’ve seen in several European countries is the ability for the executive to call for special elections to Congress or Parliament ahead of schedule. This tactic can be especially effective when partisan bickering results in a legislative body failing to fulfill their responsibility. While it can seem on the surface that such a move would benefit the executive, however, the recent vote in the United Kingdom demonstrates how the electorate can use such an election to send a strong message to the executive and set the stage for a transition of that office. Such is the true force of democracy and demonstrates to legislative members the need to be responsive to their constituents.
- Remove all protections from legal action against the president, the Cabinet, and members of Congress. As we’ve mentioned previously, presidents, cabinet members, and Congress have done some rather despicable things while acting on behalf of the American people. When we find out about these breaches of law and/or ethics, we may grow angry but we currently have little recourse in actually punishing those responsible for such action. Executive immunity covers the president, some members of the president’s staff, and cabinet secretaries, meaning they cannot be held personally liable for actions taken while in office. Members of Congress also have limited immunity for anything they say or do in the course of researching and debating legislation. While there are arguably legitimate reasons to protect those in public service from frivolous law suits, current immunity laws allow both elected officials and some appointed authorities to avoid taking responsibility for illegal actions. We need leaders who are responsible for all their activities, especially those taken on behalf of the American people. These immunities, as they currently exist, need to go.
- Provide for national referendums on issues of high importance. One of the arguments for a representative democracy is that the general population does not have the time to educate itself on the bulk of legislation necessary to run such a large government. Having to hold a nation-wide vote on every issue was impractical enough when there were only 13 colonies. The matter would be highly impossible now. So, the Constitution does not directly allow for a national referendum as we seen them exercised in many European countries. That needs to change. Granted, the rules for such need to be strict enough that we’re not being asked to cast such votes multiple times a year nor hold up important legislation while waiting for a vote. However, a Gallup poll conducted in 2013 shows that Americans favor national referenda on key issues. What it comes down to is that we don’t trust Congress or the president to act according to our wishes on issues such as, oh, health care for example. We need the ability to force a national referendum on such critical issues. Anything less is undemocratic.
- Reconstruct the authority of states to pass legislation. When the United States was young and still bristling from the tyranny of British rule, having states with individual legislatures and constitutions seemed like a good idea. The concept was that it would keep more power concentrated in the hands of the people and for the first 150 years or so that was absolutely true. However, we are now a country of over 370 million people who are increasingly mobile, traveling between cities and states on a regular basis and finding the discrepancies and often sheer idiocy of laws changing from one state to the other inhibiting our ability to practice professional trades, fill medical prescriptions, and under certain circumstances even drive a vehicle. The time has come to reconsider the authority of state legislatures and consider alternatives. One idea might be to allow the 50 governors to author legislation that is then ratified by individual states. This would potentially eliminate many of the nonsense barriers in traveling from state to state as well as provide for greater unity on issues while putting more power directly in the hands of the electorate. While that is not a perfect plan, it is far better than the ridiculousness that currently exists across the 50 states.
- Increase the ability of cities to negotiate trade agreements independent of federal treaties. Free trade agreements, specifically the Trans Pacific Partnership, received a great deal of attention during the 2016 presidential election. The concern has been that such trade agreements inevitably result in American jobs being sent overseas, an argument that is difficult to refute when one witnesses whole factories shutting down and moving across a border for cheaper labor. The exception to that rule seems to be instances where individual cities, not the federal government, are the entities negotiating the trade agreements. Cities are far better at protecting their native industries while importing both goods and jobs those cities desperately need. The problem with such tactics is the federal government keeps getting in the way with prohibitive legislation that determines with which countries cities can negotiate and the limits of those negotiations. As a result, cities are often incapable of closing highly profitable trade agreements. Such interference is both unjust and undemocratic. While some federal oversight is understandably necessary (no city should negotiate with a country with which we are at war, for example), many of the limitations are simply a power grab by special interest groups and need to go away.
- Mandatory public service. Now just hold your horses. Before you try stringing me up, pay attention to what I actually said, not what you think I said. I’m not talking about a military draft or unpaid forced volunteerism. What we need is a system that addresses the disconnect between private citizens and public service. The vast majority of Americans have no idea how a government office operates, how cities and states work together, and how general public needs such as parks, public safety, and education are administered. At the moment, less than half of one percent of the US population is active duty military. There is a complete disconnect between the general public and how government actually works. This creates severe problems when a US agency requests funding and citizens oppose an increase because they don’t understand why the funds are necessary. Mandatory public service would not only provide a higher level of civic education, resulting in a more intelligent and understanding electorate, it would also help address staffing needs in many civic positions. Work in any number of fields, from state and national parks to teaching in low-income rural areas, could be considered appropriate. Require the service to occur at some point between a person’s 18th and 25th birthday and the general attitude and education of the general electorate cannot help but improve.
- Repeal of all voter suppression laws. At the core of democracy is the concept of one person, one vote. From the very inception of our country, however, we have had an ongoing debate as to who can vote and who cannot. When the Constitution was first ratified, voting was limited to men who owned property with a few exceptions. The 1965 voting act theoretically removed the last of restrictions, making it possible for people of color to vote. However, what we’ve seen consistently over the past several years is that states, including Indiana, are passing voter ID laws that are inherently repressive. The net effect of such laws is that poor and non-white voters are disenfranchised. We should be ashamed of ourselves as a country for ever allowing such backward movement in our civil rights. Every US citizen has not only the right but the responsibility to vote. Furthermore, we need to re-establish the fact that voting is a right and not a privilege. Anything that stands between a citizen and the voting booth is an infringement of that right and a violation of democratic principles.
- End paid access to politicians in the name of fundraising. I was infuriated when I opened our local newspaper and saw that the vice-president, Indiana’s former governor, was going to visit the state in support of a not-for-profit charity. The reason for my angst was not the vice-president’s presence in his home state, but the announcement that one could purchase a private meeting with the politician for the price of a VIP ticket: $25,000. A general admission ticket for the event, where one might get within waving distance of the veep, will set you back $250. This is elitism, plain and simple. Sure, the access is done under the guise of raising funds for a non-profit agency. The end result, however, remains that only those with a spare $25,000 sitting in the bank get a chance to bend the ear of the Vice President. This type of paid access happens all the time and is yet another form of injustice that needs to stop completely.
- Increase police responsibility and end special protections. We have watched with horror as law enforcement officers across the country have been acquitted of any wrong doing after being video taped killing unarmed citizens, including children and pregnant mothers. While some places such as Salt Lake, Utah have retrained their officers with the result of having no lethal encounters, the greater majority of cities have taken no significant steps toward reducing incidents of law enforcement aggression. Even more infuriating is the ability for law enforcement to hide behind special protections that prevent them from being held responsible for their actions. These laws make no sense and we have reached a point in our country where uniform legislation needs to resolve the problem.
Revise penal code to severely reduce or eliminate incarceration for a nonviolent crime. Since 2002, the US has held the world record for rates of incarceration. No one else is even close. Are we any safer? No. Even worse, those imprisoned are disproportionately people of color. That we need a complete overhaul of our views of incarceration is without argument, but at the same time, our Attorney General is instructing prosecutors to add to the problem. How we even think about claiming to be a “free” country when we have nonsense like this going on? We can’t. We need to force a change before change forces itself upon us.
Easier recall of elected officials. Many people think that if a politician is not doing what their constituents want they can simply have a recall election and replace them. For the vast majority of Americans, however, recall votes are not possible. In fact, only a handful of states, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin, allow for recall votes at all. Six of those require that the politician has committed a specific crime before a recall vote can take place. Everyone else is just stuck until the next election. Justice and equality are served when the electorate has the ability to hold their representatives fully accountable
Limit president’s ability to invoke military action without approval by Congress. One of the most intelligent portions of the Constitution is the 10th Amendment, which states that only Congress has the ability to declare war. However, since 1990 presidents have repeatedly looked for ways around that law, committing acts of aggression against sovereign countries without the declaration of war. As a result, we have kept our troops in a constant state of war. In fact, the first ribbon my son received as a US Marine was for enlisting during a time of war—war that Congress never officially declared. Such action not only violates the balance of power established by Constitution but has facilitated untold crimes against humanity conducted in the name of the United States. In fact, in 2015 an international court tribunal in Malaysia found President Bush (43), Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their legal advisers Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, William Haynes, Jay Bybee and John Yoo all guilty of war crimes. Of course, executive immunity prevents them from actually being held accountable for their actions. Nonetheless, we need to remove the ability for any president to commit such crimes ever again. There is no justice for America or the world as long as we allow presidents to act unilaterally without any threat of consequence beyond the ballot box.
Yes, that list is long. Yes, I could easily make it longer but at this point, I’m feeling a bit out of breath. Yes, the bullet points are painfully brief. Each of the concerns raised deserves a 75.000-word treatment complete with appropriate research and scholarly citation. This is not the place to be exhaustive in defense of my positions, merely exhausting.
What I hope we’ve driven home, however, is that the state of our democracy is severely damaged and that it is going to take more than a few memes or GIFs spread across social media to adequately address any of the situations. We can march for unity and sing for solidarity all we want and even sit in and disrupt activity on Wall Street for a couple of days and feel really good about resisting the headlong plunge toward tyranny. If we want to actually turn the country around, however, and set it on a course that is sustainable, the amount of work necessary is tremendous.
Keeping up the lawn is hard work. Those weeds aren’t going to pull themselves. We had best roll up our sleeves, put on some knee pads and get busy.
Waking up in the morning, one of the first things I do is check the weather forecast for rain. If the ground is dry and staying that way, the lawn doesn’t need to be mowed. However, if we get a decent rainfall, the grass has to be cut within 48 hours or so to keep it from looking shaggy. The challenge comes when we get toward the end of summer and rainfall typically becomes more frequent. The grass needs cutting but there’s more rain moving in. When the window of opportunity is small, I often end up just mowing the damn thing myself.
So it is with the state of our nation. Our window of opportunity is shrinking. While there’s little we can do at this point to prevent more stores from closing, the need to revise our economy, our society, and our government grows stronger. We have comparatively little time before tyranny and fascism completely take over our yard. We’ve gone beyond merely being unkempt and shaggy to the point we are becoming a menace. The weeds are tall and harboring rats and snakes.
There is a point in this prolonged metaphor where pulling out a lawn mower isn’t sufficient. Have you ever tried mowing a lawn with knee-high weeds? It’s not possible. The thick overgrowth chokes the mower. One has to go through with a scythe and/or a weed trimmer and knock down the overgrowth before mowing. I’ve seen a few extreme instances, open fields with no buildings involved, where the tangle was so consuming and impossible that the only option was to set fire the whole thing, plow it under and start over.
We’ve not yet reached the point where we need to set fire to any portion of our society. Cutting back the overgrowth isn’t going to be easy, though. We’ve let it go too long with no real maintenance, making the false assumption that our problems would just work themselves out over the natural course of time.
Sorry, there is no such thing as a self-cutting lawn. We have to do the work ourselves.
This article has turned out to be about five times longer than I ever intended and I still feel as though I’m short changing you on the amount of detail necessary to justify my opinions. As I read back over everything, trying to make sure there are no glaring errors in grammar, I know that mine is a unique perspective. Yet, nothing said here is new or original. All of these thoughts existed in print long before I ever made the fateful decision to sit down and write.
Then write some more.
In the grander scheme of things, I know nothing. We’ve linked to scholarly work by people with far greater wisdom and knowledge than I will ever have. I would hope that you might follow those links and take advantage of the public access to such wisdom, but history indicates you probably won’t be bothered. In fact, it is much more likely that if you have made it this far into this article, you didn’t actually read; you skimmed, hopped over paragraphs rather than taking the time to consume what is ultimately going to be roughly 16,000 words. Philip Yancey’s Washington Post article, “The Death Of Reading Is Threatening The Soul,” painfully identifies the challenge that almost all of us face. We don’t actually read what’s online. We ride the waves along the surface and then congratulate ourselves for all we think we’ve learned.
As I let go of the handle and let the engine on the mower die, I wonder if I’ve actually accomplished anything. Maybe the blade was set too high. Perhaps we should have cut deeper. I can spend the day second guessing my actions but I won’t. Kat’s off work today. The sun is shining. I think there’s a park calling our names.
Here’s what I want you to take away from this whole thing:
- Education must become the supreme priority
- Truth must be restored to the center of justice
- Everyone must be able to live equitably
- We must demand cooperative and responsive leadership
Enough of the postmodern bullshit where truth is whatever is convenient at the time, facts are a matter of perspective, and the scientific method doesn’t actually prove anything. Put that nonsense in the waste bin where it belongs. Do your research. Real research, mind you, not just Googling topics and reading the headlines. Study. Think. Ponder. Act.
Before we jump off, I should thank my models, Skilar, Lauren, Big Gabe, Little Gabe, and Tippy with some extra appreciation to my friend Keith for holding a reflector and transporting Skilar. I must also thank Kat for being understanding as I’ve largely left her alone with the kids for the past week while I’ve donned headphone and shut out the world while writing. She has done some amazing things while I’ve sat here typing. The soft-focused pictures of me were lensed by Big Gabe. He’s learning.
Meanwhile, the 45th president cursed in a politicized speech to boy scouts. Wow, that grass really needs to be cut. Short.