We human beings are predisposed to act tribally: we have enormous strength for coming together as a group based upon similarity. If not tempered with a strong penchant for reason, however, we can’t do democracy, and thus our strength becomes a weakness. We have to learn enough about the peculiarities of the human condition to understand the precarious, conflicting nature of human relations and not become prisoners to our worst instincts. A liberal education can serve to dissipate existential anxiety because it offers intellectual and emotional thinking alternatives to the simpleminded blame game so often played by people whose feelings trump their capacity for reason. We must not let ourselves be manipulated by politicians who are masters of simple techniques that can cause us to charge emotionally ahead on cue as if they were holding a red cape and we were brainless bulls.
Instead of striving to be a country that produces informed citizens who live up to our democratic ideals and who know enough to look beyond superficial appearances, we allow ourselves to blindly educate toward the goal of employment. We give the highest priority to the intellectual pliability necessary to conform in authoritative organizations. At the same time we pay an immense price in existential anxiety because modern life is so complicated that it takes an extraordinary level of understanding of the human condition merely to cope without the felt need to find someone to blame for our troubles. We are creatures intelligent enough to realize that we are mortal and that there is virtually nothing we can do about it. Unless we’re prepared with a deep understanding of our nature, we lash out at phantoms and scapegoats to distract us from our anxiety. But because the results are so fleeting, the angst escalates in a vicious and repetitious cycle.
Uneducated people seldom figure this out on their own without a rigorous effort to learn what it means to have had the extraordinary opportunity to live as a human being in a world thrown together by happenstance. It’s comforting to learn from Steven Pinker’s insightful tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that there is a historical trajectory underway that suggests we are becoming a more moral and a less violent species, that we are indeed becoming more and more civilized. Progress, however, is so slow that it’s barely noticeable, except in historical perspective, and resistance is palpable.
In his book, The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks made a valiant effort to demonstrate the complex emotions that make us such imperfect specimens of reason. Critics of all political persuasions attacked him with vehemence because his depiction was biased and, indeed, imperfect—as if some books aren’t. Reason and emotion are messy subjects. They are no more separate entities than the notion of mind and body. What goes on in our heads determines who we are and what kind of a society we live in. That we can’t seem to figure this out is baffling.
Democracy is an all-out intellectual enterprise and cannot be sustained without what most learned individuals would characterize as an elite education. America was founded by deep thinkers, and it is a fallacy beyond credulity to believe it can be maintained by an uninformed citizenry. Large groups of people carrying signs with misspelled slogans and inconsistent metaphors would be laughable were it not so pathetic and so inexcusable in light of what we know about education. Existentially we are an ignorant nation, and in spite of our soaring technology, we don’t seem to be doing much to alleviate that ignorance. In too many instances we are technically savvy and socially inept with regard to human relations. We cannot text our way out of ignorance.
When I consider the sheer intellectual enthusiasm and thoughtful rigor in physicist Lisa Randall’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, I have a hard time accepting the reality that millions of our fellow citizens not only do not believe in evolution, in point of fact, they still believe in magical thinking and base many of their opinions about matters of paramount importance upon the hearsay of people who lived when the earth was thought to be flat. Is it any wonder these people can be persuaded to turn against their own government and in the next breath celebrate the notion of “We the People” as the virtuous standard of a self-governed people?
The Tea Party brand of hate-the-government ethos that is so virulent today ratcheted up in earnest with Ronald Reagan, who decried government in public even as he expanded its size. And yet, Reagan was savvy enough to raise taxes when conditions warranted it, something that is now considered an all-out abomination to those who clearly expect something for nothing and who never hesitate to demand lower taxes, no matter what is at stake or how badly the country needs revenue.
We are trillions of dollars behind in paying for things we’ve already consumed and for an infrastructure that is already in deep disrepair from a lack of maintenance and upkeep. My grandfather would have wondered why we didn’t pay our way forward. He would have been incredulous at the prospect of having a tax cut with two unpaid wars underway, not to mention a Medicare drug program that amounts to a windfall for drug companies at taxpayer expense.
Early in 2010, Fareed Zakaria (a Jurassic conservative seemingly from my grandfather’s era) suggested a way out of America’s debt crisis, one that would eliminate the income tax for the vast majority of Americans. Zakaria proposed a value added tax between 18 and 25 percent similar to that of many Scandinavian countries—countries that are growing and expanding in an atmosphere pretty much free of pervasive government hatred as it stands in America. Zakaria argues that if we did this, we could balance the budget and pay for healthcare in the same fell swoop. But in today’s political climate, what—short of a revolution—would it take to do something so sensible? How do we get the people who have been quietly shifting the tax burden onto the middle and lower class and sending their factory jobs to underdeveloped nations to once again pay their fair share? Rioting in the streets comes to mind because in some places things are already getting violent and ugly. And if we stay on the current track with growing political animosity, a declining middle class, and rising inequality, the protests may get much worse. As this effort expands and leads to more aggressive incidents, the Occupy Wall Street movement may prove to be only the beginning of something much bigger.
Because it happened so slowly, few people seem to comprehend how we got here. Over four decades, rich and powerful people, through political donations, lobbyists, and a K-Street kind of influence, have rendered our political system incapable of collecting enough in taxes to pay our bills, not to mention spending billions on their pet projects. But the seemingly sheer genius of their efforts resides in the fact that so many people among the middle class, and even many of those who qualify as working poor, whose livelihoods suffer the most in this kind of economy, take up the mantle of taxes as evil on behalf of the rich. It would be an act of genius, were it not so easy to do among citizens without adequate knowledge about the fundamentals of human behavior, namely that even though we think of ourselves as being above and beyond tribal behavior, we are still bound by it psychologically. Far too many people who are without an existential education gravitate toward ethnocentrism with or without provocation. They are as easy to incite to act against their own interests as it is to excite children about going to Disneyland.
What worries me most is that, given all of the time and lobbying effort devoted to rigging the system in favor of great wealth, and given that the blow dealt us by the Citizens United decision leaves us so few options, without some traumatic event, average citizens may never again regain power over lobbied interests and corporate treasuries to further their own special interests. America is now a plutocracy, and the loopholes that have allowed some marginal semblance of democracy to exist have been quietly closing for decades through back-room deals sealed by law as politicians and lobbyists sell the rest of us out. Currently, the ideological bent of the United States Supreme Court makes this easy to accomplish.
Whenever I get very discouraged, I try to imagine what it must have been like to be an abolitionist in the mid-1800s, or a Suffragette a couple of decades before women were able to vote. Such thoughts renew my determination to act. I am encouraged by the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for military service, as it shows a clear decline in one malignant strain of bigotry. I’m also very much aware that there is still plenty of time for the emergence of the positive influences I wrote about in September University, as the baby-boom generation faces up to its impeding mortality. The growth of this aging demographic is barely underway and will continue to play itself out between now and 2029. Instead of a war of among generations, as some pundits project, the baby-boom generation has it within their power to inspire their children and grandchildren to pave the way for common ground.
Lest any of us fail to realize the importance of speaking up or be reluctant to take a risk, I would offer this bit of advice from Steve Jobs. At a Stanford University commencement speech in 2005 he said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” This would seem to apply doubly as one generation contemplates their legacy and the chance that theirs will be one of outright cowardice if they fail to act.
I urge every reader to take steps to help reinvigorate democracy in America. Do whatever you can in any way you can. Make your voice heard. But first do your homework. Learn to reflect from your opposition’s perspective, and find what’s valid in their point of view, because it’s seldom the case that any position is completely without merit. Don’t engage in arguments based upon hearsay, popular culture, and the likes of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. The Tea Party blames big government for the current economic malaise. The Occupy Wall Street movement blames big business. The truth is somewhere in between. Both political parties share the culpability, both are responsible. Putting a stop to the collusion of government and corporate America through special-interest lobbying should be something that the political left and right can find enough common ground to agree on. The public financing of political campaigns and free media provided by broadcast networks should interest all parties concerned about the well-being of the average citizen.
Moreover, we should begin to lobby media, as I argue in Existential Aspirations, to let them know that we don’t want to be referred to as consumers. We are citizens, and the only way we will achieve a just society is to accept the role and responsibility that comes with citizenship. Calling ourselves citizens will remind us of those responsibilities, and I believe the end result could be a dramatic increase in awareness on the part of Americans and a willingness to rise to the occasion.
We should try to match and surpass the kind of rigorous thinking that gave America the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, because it’s clear that many of the people whining the loudest about getting back to the latter haven’t read it, or, if they have, they didn’t understand it. Simply put: We can’t be proud and boastful of “We the People,” hate our government at the same time, and long prosper. Hating our government is tantamount to hating ourselves, and self-hatred is not only self-destructive, it’s a poor premise upon which to found and run a country.
American is the class we should all aspire to. By nature of our founding ideals, there is room for all categories of people, creeds, and beliefs. Our founders said as much in the documents they left behind. One can imagine their chagrin at having those documents touted for reasons they did not intend, by people who do not read them and feel no need to do so, but who presuppose they must contain support for their own kind’s well-being. Disabusing citizens of this notion should, in my view, be the first priority of education. We are Americans by class distinction when we buy into our ideals intellectually and emotionally. Remember, it’s not me the people or us the people, as in our group. It’s “We the People.”
Photos: Library of Congress