Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

It is Thanksgiving day. After preparing some of the food to be cooked this afternoon, we took our dogs for a long walk in the words to the west of here. The woods are crisscrossed by stone walls; 100 or even 50 years ago what is now dense forest must have been open farmland. It connects us to the rural past that we remember on Thanksgiving Day when we are grateful for ample harvests and granaries filled for the coming wint

 We also remember the proud self-government our farmer ancestors imposed on themselves. They were free to run their farms as they thought best and together with their neighbors they took care of roads and schools and sent their representatives off to the state capital and to Washington DC to speak for them.

This is a gentle day. The few people we meet in the words wish us a happy Thanksgiving and peace and we answer with the same wishes. The world is content and strangers smiled at each other.

But overnight everything changes. On the next day the contentment is replaced by greedy needs and desires. We need more things; we need to buy them as cheaply as possible. From being glad with what we have accomplished and what we have, we are now dissatisfied, greedy for more possessions, for new technologies. Where yesterday our hearts were calm and content, today we are dissatisfied, satisfaction is not within reach and we need to incur serious debts in order to fill the gaping holes in our hearts. We have returned from the slightly nostalgic reaching back to our farming past. Today we are city people, rushed, dissatisfied, envious, competitive as we push ahead of others in the line to be first to spend our hard-earned money.

We usually describe such orgies of buying as symptoms of American consumerism. Individuals are being blamed for being avid consumers. If they just chose to stay home on black Friday everything would be okay. But that is a shallow way of considering the change that happens from Thursday to Friday.

The fantastic change we undergo overnight reminds us of the different kinds of people we Americans are. We are anchored in the virtues of country life and self-determination for a century or more (as well as in the racist and sexist vices of that older America). But we live today in a world that is very different, that makes a virtue of being dissatisfied. Everyone and everything must grow. No business is ever big enough. No rich person is ever rich enough. No powerful person can abide contented with their power; they must get more.

Growth, improvement, winning competitions, being the best, the most powerful, the loudest, the best-known are now compelling goals. Persons content with their lot, who are not striving to improve their condition, to find a better job, to buy a bigger house – such persons are lacking in ambition. It is no longer clear that they are good Americans.

Can we regain some of that earlier calm. Can we once again be content with what we have instead of needing more, more, more all the time?

This a very large question. The answers we have are only partial. Here is just one among many:

The imperative for business growth encourages companies to make their employees more and more productive. When you do the same thing over and over, you become very good at it and can work very fast and be very productive. But your job is not challenging, instead, it becomes really boring.

Seeking growth in every way possible, our employers make work really unpleasant. There is, then, some solace in buying new things when workdays are repetitive and tedious. Working in hierarchical and authoritarian settings, choosing what new things to buy can feel like an assertion of autonomy and freedom. The orgies of consumption become more attractive to people whose work life is unhappy and repetitive.

The tremendous technical ingenuity of many of our businesses should
not be devoted to making more money for stockholders but for automating tedious work and making work creative and challenging. Their job should leave people satisfied at the end of the day instead of leaving them feeling empty.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Democracy in the US


    In my last blog I pointed out that our government regularly lies to us. It does not matter whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, or whether Congress has more members of one party or another. Our government again and again acts in secrecy not from some foreign power but from American citizens. Our government again and again misrepresents what it does and conceals some of its activities.

    The point of repeating these familiar facts was to argue that we do not live in a democracy as it is usually defined for us, namely as a government that is  "of, for, and by the people." It is definitely not by the people because they don't even know what the government is doing. It is not government for the people because the secret acts often do not benefit the people. The war in Iraq is one example of that. It is not government of the people because they are being lied to by a ruling group of politicians and business people who hold the rest of us in sufficient contempt to lie to us without shame.

    That is an important lesson that many Americans have not yet learned. They are confused by other aspects of our electoral system, by other aspects of our media which have more freedom than media have in many other countries, and by our judicial system which provides fair hearings to a significant number of citizens.

    All of those, are of course important. In electoral campaigns and in various more or less official media – from the New York Times and Washington Post to random blogs and tweets, citizens express their views on many things and sometimes those views make a difference. There has been – to begin with a negative example – a vigorous opposition to the Iraq war from the very beginning but neither President Bush nor Pres. Obama was very much moved by that. The opposition to the Vietnam war, on the other hand, was so massive that the government could not ignore it. Support for gay marriage has made a difference in courts and in legislative bodies. Support for legalizing marijuana has also affected government policy and the opinion of legislators.

    In our country, what people think sometimes makes a difference. But that is of course true in every country. The Germans did not advertise or talk publicly about their killing Jews, or homosexuals, or communists. They knew better than to stimulate opposition by letting people know what was going on. The secrecy of the Stalinist regime teaches us the same lesson: even brutal dictators care about what people know about them. All governments are vulnerable to public opinion.

    But it may well be true that ours is more vulnerable than a firmly entrenched dictatorship. The free speech we have, which is not unqualified by any means, does allow us to speak out in ways which other countries would not allow. My blog would quickly end me in hot water in no time at all in China, in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia and many other places. Being able to speak out is a real advantage and I am the last person to deny that. I enjoy the leeway that I have  been given.

    As a white person which some resources I am not afraid of the police and I would be confident to receive fair treatment in the courts if that came up. There are many other Americans who cannot be that confident, but some of us can and that, too, is very good.

    But all of these privileges, however valuable they are, do not yield a government "of, for, and by the people." That does not exist in the United States of America.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

When the government lies

A newspaper recently revealed that the Pentagon has been spending $7 million or more to pay for patriotic displays before major league athletic games. Our government is willing to pay to make us be more patriotic. I suppose they want to inspire young people to enlist and their parents to welcome such a choice. But the payments had, of course, been secret.

This story seems silly. One small example of the government's inclination to lie to us, to conceal its actions, to try to deceive us about its goals and its plans. We are by now used to being lied to. Think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that Pres. Johnson faked in order to get Congress to approve of escalating the Vietnam war. Think of the Iran Contra scandal when Pres. Reagan waged a secret war in Nicaragua. When the Chilean people elected a socialist President, our government instigated a military coup to impose a brutal dictatorship on Chileans for many years. Need I mention the weapons of mass destruction that got us into the Iraq war? Or take the Asian trade treaty now before Congress that was negotiated in secret. In this case the government quite openly deceived the public. We were told that what the trade policy of the United States was to be was none of our business. How much more openly contemptuous of citizens can a government be?

What else is new? You might ask. That is the way the world goes.

But when I recently read an issue of The Veteran, the paper of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, with its stories of Vietnam vets suffering gravely for many years after their return from Vietnam, I realized that government lies are much more serious and should not be passed over by us as being just one more thing that's wrong with the world.

The Vietnam war, begun secretly and expanded under false pretenses, killed 58,000 American soldiers and left larger numbers than that homeless, divorced, addicted, fighting for their life every day, many of the ridden by terrible guilt for their actions during the war. It cost the lives of 4 million Vietnamese, has left the country full of unexploded bombs and shells. Children in Vietnam continue to be born crippled and deformed by agent orange. The Iraq war, begun under false pretenses, has left that country in ruins and many of our young men and women, who survived, seriously troubled, if not the victims of suicide.

You cannot escape the profound sense of contempt for ordinary citizens that motivated the governments that began and continued these wars. As young men, the architects of the Iraq war deliberately escaped military service. But they did not hesitate to send other young men and women to their deaths in Iraq. Clearly the privileged members of our government have no respect for the citizens over whom they rule.

The ideals we proclaim and which we often want to impose forcibly on other nations – freedom, equality, democracy – are unavailable to a people not respected by its government, or to a people whose government regularly deceives it without so much as a moment’s hesitation.

We believe ourselves to be free in so far as the government does not interfere with choices we make, as long as they're not illegal. But if the government lies to you, they need not block your choices; the choices you make will always fail to some extent because they are choices  in a world that does not exist. A lying government prevents you from making realistic choices appropriate to the world in which you live. Your choices are doomed to fail.

Take this one example: We are told by the powerful people who are in and out of government that in America everyone can reach the goals they set for themselves, if only they work hard enough. Hilary Clinton reiterated that recently in a message to Wellesley College alumnae. But that is of course false. Where you are born in the social hierarchy pretty much determines where you end up and that is, for most people, pretty close to where they started.

But you believe what you are told and although your parents did not finish high school and are in spite of hard work, always out of money, you set yourself a goal of becoming a shaper of American foreign policy in the State Department. You go to Community College and then to a state college and graduate, owing a, for you, serious amount of money. You apply to the State Department and get a job as a file clerk. Will you rise up to be an advisor to the Secretary of State? What do you think?

No one prevents you from working for the goals you set yourself. But you are misled about the world in which you live. You are prevented from making free choices because you are misinformed about what would be reasonable choices for you. They do not control your life by sending police to your house. They control you by misinformation. You are not free.

Clearly a world in which some can lie to others and get away with it again and again is not a world in which we are all equals. There are the people in position to lie and there are those who believe those lies and those who do not. Clearly in such a world democracy is a charade. How can you and I, to whom the government lies quite regularly, think that we control that government through our votes?

A country like ours where governments --both leaning right and leaning left--do not scruple to lie to citizens has no freedom, no equality and no democracy. Anyone who tells you different is a liar.

We live in an oligarchy where the few disrespect the many and manipulate them by lies and misinformation.