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Brief Observations At the Still Point 


"It does not take a majority to prevail...but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men."

Samuel Adams

Looking over the past fifty years one comes to this conclusion: That the simple bottom-line political drama is the survival of large nation-states. The 20th century saw huge land-masses arise, through modern technology and scientific organization, along with tremendous economic growth, to dominate the world.

One thinks immediately of the United States, the late Soviet Union, and China as creations of the modern world. It's also apparent that the survivor is the one who renews the organizing principle of the culture and revivifies it despite the pain it extracts. The infamous '60's, for instance, were a world-wide phenomena in the so-called first world. America, western Europe and Japan were all rocked by the energy that swept young people, then all people, into a whirlwind.

No matter how painful and jarring it was to many segments of the culture, including the institutions, the adrenaline of that time was precisely what saves a gargantuan nation-state.

At the center of the cultural restlessness, no doubt, was the nuclear dilemma. This development threw an extraordinary gauntlet at the feet of people during the 50's and 60's. For a rare moment a nation-state, dependent on progress and building toward the future, believed the future was an absurdity, and threw off progress as an idea. Paralyzed by this fear the young people, world-wide, initiated some enormous and energetic hope to, if nothing else, save their sanity.

Many things changed including the massive entrance of women and minorities into the productive society; environmental consciousness, a more sophisticated culture, the seeds of renewable energy and personal computers, an authentic attempt to believe that all men and women are created equal. This whirled through Watergate and Vietnam and lost a good deal of momentum when Reagan became President. A natural sort of homeostasis flattened the thrill of things and everything shifted to money, family, and faith. Reagnism was impossible without the 60's. One implied the other. And just as the adrenaline got rather crazed and out of control, more vitality began to emerge from the conservative parts of the culture.

It's interesting that America went through that process but the Soviet Union blocked and thwarted it at every turn, still at the center, since only a few people actually believed in the animating principles. The free people proved themselves flexible while the totalitarian mind was fixed at a point rapidly vanishing into the past.

The lessons: Stay light on your feet. There are no absolutes, only discoveries. There are always credible facts on the other side of your argument. Never stop learning.

July 28, 2006

I was thumbing through the NY Times and came across a review of a new book by Morris Berman called, "Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire." The book was panned enough to make me interested. And it is amusing what a mere forty years will do to a nation's consciousness. At the height of the Vietnam War this effort would have been touted, probably a best-seller on campus, used as a reference by others who predicted end-times back then. And they seemed much more probable at that time, especially among the young. Something happened in the intervening generation and a half worth looking at.

The huge difference of course was at that time any criticism of American culture or the people was followed immediately by a positive policy idea or a change in habit. For instance, the criticism of America's tasteless food in the 50's and 60's transformed into a marvelous quest for interesting and healthy food. When there was great criticism about American's who smoke cigarettes, there was a decline in smoking.

In those days, then, one could say that people were more open to criticism because the establishment had been discredited by Vietnam. Now you have a much more difficult job of convincing people of anything. They don't listen to intellectual critics, novelists, social psychologists unless those types are telling them exactly what they want to hear. "Give us the good news about ourselves and we will reward you richly."

American intellectuals, of course, made a fatal mistake. Number one they suckled off the dried teats of the European intellectual who was watching his vaunted civilization blow itself up and could never reconcile the fact that America was quickly replacing Europe at the center of world power. Since the American intellectuals were not plugged into American experience they relied heavily on the attitude of European intellectuals which was one of pure pessimism. The pessimism in Europe made sense, it doesn't make sense in America. So, the author of this book is between a rock and a hardplace. On the one hand he can't initiate a great revival of social criticism because the people are in a state of torpor. And he can't really be a prophet because time will roll merrily on revealing that America is only at the beginning stages of its life as a culture. That if one were a prophet he would say that America exists now where Europe existed when it started to emerge out of the "dark ages" and into its run of powerful history. It's not exactly the same but there are tantalizing parallels. For one, at a certain point the European must have experienced his culture as a new, unprecedented thing and yet was in the process of re-discovering his own past. For another, class divisions were becoming much more permanent.

A better approach to the finicky game of critiquing the American people is to simply say, "people, God bless you, you aren't ready for the 21st century, here's why. Do you want to survive as a nation-state or not? Here's where you are lacking. This is where China or India will get a leg up on you." A writer would do this out of love for the beauty of the liberal, democratic culture. Or, at least, the promise of it. And one of the great principles of that creed is simply, "don't be afraid of the people." Despise a few of them, try to teach a few of them, laugh at a few of them but never fear them.

A man or woman of experience or knowledge will not accept the common generalizations of either the intellectuals or the reactionaries. In fact, the best way to gain credibility among large groups of Americans is to demonstrate to them you know how things are put together, whether it is a law or a machine.

The intellectuals need to get themselves from under the shadow of Europe and start thinking bravely into the stone-face of American culture. That courage will win in the long run. They need to think as though a good future is available and that it requires this, this, and the other thing to be in place. It must emphasize the process of growth and development available to every man and woman; every organization and party; every piece of technology and idea. It has to have so much faith in itself that it can afford the luxury of viewing reality as it is and take it as it is and offer something of what it can be. Americans will not respond to the negative. This is a part of the grain of American culture. If the intellectuals and artists are negative the American people simply pay off pop heroes and preachers to keep positive and the intellectuals wither on the vine.

Well, we could go on and on about the survivability of the present-day America. We hope for the best because we stake the future on the ability of people to recognize they are less than they are capable of being. But, we often overreach ourselves and get too far afield.

What does it take to be a liberal, democratic citizen in the 21st century? That's one premise:

  1. Knowledge of how the Constitution was built, from what sources and what were the hang-ups.
  2. Knowledge of the laws and how they become laws.
  3. Accounting for the money in the budget.
  4. Fighting for ones liberty to be a fully developed person who is not afraid of the facts because many facts have passed through him and he has seen he has been wrong and facts have corrected him. That he fights for the best in himself and fights against the all-to-common inhuman that sweeps him into a never-never land of ultimate power. That freedom is a reality. That check and balances, due process, due diligence, and accountability are all necessary habits of mind that have to be learned over and over again. That there is no taking-for-granted that one is ipso facto a "citizen," without some dedicated effort.
  5. Tolerance and open-endedness; curiosity, boundless optimism that the future will be better.
  6. Experience of all regions, all peoples, all activities, all environments, all modes of communication and transportation; everything that teaches the citizen that there is more than himself or herself. But that, in a real sense, all belongs to the citizen him or herself.
  7. Knowledge of the world and of other citizens in the world as a product of knowing him or herself.
  8. Making political decisions based on: (1)vision of future (2) correlated with pragmatic problem-solving.
  9. Paying attention in every sense possible. In other words, having a skeptical view of the representation of their power.....

Sometimes these are in place, sometimes not. Something seems to get short-circuited in the American people on their way to enlightenment. They either become highly disillusioned or they become so hard and cynical it plays on the land like a superstition. Freedom and liberty are earned every generation. If not the battlefield, then the ability of the people to govern themselves. Self-rule is the ultimate thing fought for, the ability to rule oneself and expect others to rule themselves and for the powerful to rule themselves in ways that contribute to the culture. And often it works that very way.

What is the intermediation between the pure liberal democratic citizen and the representation of power? One, obviously, is that the powerful collect among themselves to do their deeds and only answer afterwards to their constituents. Two, are the self-interested who sometimes blatantly write the laws for the representative. Three are the staff support who consult a variety of resources to find out about problems and possible solutions. Now the staff might do research in various databases or have consultants come in and write a report. Eventually the representative expects the best available information that he can, at least, discuss. Then, the law is passed and experts and lawyers are the ones who test and interpret the law. The people may or not be involved in the process. Suddenly the law is among them, acting in a variety of ways.

The danger is, of course, that the representative is as shallow and ignorant as the constituents and is easily swayed, easily bamboozled by the self-interested to make law according to their interests.

And any self-interest will have lawyers, experts, consultants on their side to advocate for them all under the guise of "truth seeking." And so the question the citizen puts to the representative is, "who do you trust?" And "who do you go to in order to make your decision?"

Every problem has its complexities above and beyond the ability of the normal citizen and his or her representative to understand. Staff members in different agencies will help along, certainly. Journalists can clarify some of this by consulting with the advocates and presenting each side.

There is then several flows of information. One is from the staff to the representative. Another is the flow from self-interest to the staff and representative. Still another is from experts to staff members in agencies. Still another is from advocates to journalists. And from journalists to the public. Pockets of the public will consult much more detailed reports from a variety of sources. At the end of the process the public must have a certain knowledge of the problem, possible solution and law that emanates from the attempt to solve the problem. And the representative, whatever resource he uses, must do the same thing. If there is clear understanding between them, communication about all of this on them, then the condition between them is healthier than not. That is, if what is transacted between them is authentic information, even knowledge, and not meaningless platitudes.

The truth of the matter is that the citizen is only interested in his own life. What matters in his own life? He asks this and since there are millions of citizens there is a vast array of "what matters," and no attempt to reach beyond his self-interest. This is the heart of conflict in a big nation-state and why power is distributed widely so one self-interest will have to ally with other self-interest to get anything done. But it is also a challenge to the citizen to know beyond his self-interest, to get beyond it and know "what matters" to many who are not himself. This one could term as the maturing of a democracy. This takes a willful act on the part of the citizen to know more than his self-interest, to go beyond his own "matter" and look at the whole society.

June 30, 2006

I've been reading an excerpt from Ann Coulter's new book, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism." It's an odd thing and goes to the concern I had in my previous report that we happen to live in "the poorest political era in my recollection." Coulter uses the old Limbaugh ploy of total denial, mixed in with some literary piss that she dispenses with skirt held high over a voodoo doll called, "liberalism." As with Limbaugh it is all entertainment for the purposes of making her rich, with the ability to live the life she chooses and get away from the awful masses.

The secret to the success of Limbaugh and Coulter is very simple: They express the majoritarian point of view. This view is a dim one based on the fantasy of television and its ability to absorb the common sense of the mind. A person outside of this reality is a lost soul, no more a part of the political culture than a bug that was squashed a thousand years ago.

Ms. Coulter is a corollary to the crazed leftists I've heard over the years who, quite frankly, have some kind of murderous outrage that goes to personal problems they won't own up to. I won't speculate what hers is.

She intimates that liberalism is a religion and then tries to prove it. It reminded me of religious tracts I read in the late 70's from the newly energized Islamic fundamentalist movement. The only difference between her brand of fundamentalism and the brand sprouting up in the middle-east is that her hatred, frustration, and profound alienation is converted to political fuel to burn down every remnant of a liberal democracy. Personally, I trust the flawed men who created the political culture infinitely more than the parasites and jackals who want to manipulate it today, such as Ms. Coulter.

In the middle-east they don't have these fine political institutions centuries in duration and their rage is expressed in a more primal fashion.

It is an odd feeling to realize that there is a greater common bond between the Islamic fundamentalist and his counterpart in Dallas or South Carolina, than with the men who created the American government in the first place.

So finally the common citizen, rational and bemused says, "the system worked but the culture failed." And the cultural failure is probably more dangerous in the long run. The American people do not avail themselves of the opportunity to create a new and great culture. The tools are there for them to pick up and build a few decent decades of political culture.

Instructions for the jury.

As a judge will instruct a jury, "you bring in your common sense, your life experience, your knowledge; that all comes in to enrich the ability to discover the facts of the matter." Please have a lot of experience, knowledge, and common sense when you enter the American political culture! Don't leave anything out when you study issues or candidates. Get rid of every prejudice, every stupidity, every trick that prevents you from making wise judgements.

Ann Coulter argues like a madwoman defending herself in a murder trial in which the trail of guilt leads directly to her. Is she using the courtroom as a personal ax to chop away all thoughts she is crazed, paranoid and delusional? Possibly. Only the doctor can say whether she is insane or not and she avoids him like a virus. Is she cold and hateful at the core of herself? Yes. Is there something intelligent about her? Yes...wasted intelligence but something is there. It's intelligence bought out by the oldest game in town: Get crazy, Get rich, Get out and show them your fine rear-end as you leave the show.

This juror says Ann Coulter is guilty as charged, take her away please.

The left-liberal type has become a kind of shibboleth. The remnants of the old sixties crowd have been flattened by time. The vast majority of people in this country are middle-class property owners or those who want to become middle-class property owners. Fringes rise up in urban areas and rural areas. That tells me that the political spectrum is decidedly suburban and everything else a kind of tragic entertainment. That is part of the problem in our body politic. The suburban center needs to connect to the rural poor and the inner city poor and demand that intelligence figure out how to move these groups closer to the middle-class. And not pit one group against another.

Finally, a reaction is brewing against the dominance of the Republican, fundamentalist crowd. It has the chance of being a good and creative thing. Those who are about to enter this arena should strip themselves of all assumptions, all the soft-wiring that has been developed because the "liberal" has been on such a defensive run the past twenty years. Earn the respect of the middle-class property holder by developing positive policies designed to solve their problems. Spewing on about greenhouse gasses means very little to people unless you figure out how the problem impacts them locally. It can be done and it should be done.

We have passed through a very unremarkable period of time mainly because of this "cultural war;" a hold-over from the 60's and 70's. It's rather stale and bubbles forth in any number of crack-brained "commentators," on and off-line. I wrote back in 1998 on My Virtual Space that we were ending a thirty year cycle in American politics but that the wheezing hatreds of that time keep pushing it forward like the old engine that could.

June 9, 2006

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