Jul 312012

Last week, I talked about the inevitable presence and place of elites in American Society. While we believe that all men are created equal and certain of their rights are unalienable and should never be threatened, we understand that some of us have advantages and abilities that others do not. Nonetheless, we hope that our children and grandchildren might yet find exceptional success for their efforts.

America has continued to struggle to define, expand, and guarantee our liberties. American slaves have been granted the rights of citizenship. Their descendants are increasingly able to vote freely, serve in the military, and sit, as free people, on any free seat on any bus. Women have been given the right to own property, vote, earn equal wages, and use birth control. Recently, more of us have received additional health care protection so that we don’t face the choice of staying healthy or dying quickly.

Nonetheless, America has always faced groups determined to twist government to favor their private wealth, power, and industry. In the years before World War I, this was called “The Gilded Age.” Corruption was open, corporations organized violence against their workers, stark poverty ravaged the lives of the poor crowded into tenement housing. If you were hurt on the job, you could consider yourself fired before you hit the ground.

The “Panic of 1893” was the result of corporate corruption and embezzlement on a massive scale. They even got the US Army to intervene in labor disputes. The “Great Depression” preceding World War II was triggered by the collapse of unregulated financial speculation by financiers. The Financial Collapse of 2007 was also the work of bankers and financiers trading in fabricated instruments derived from bundled lots of high-risk investments. Greece, other countries, and banks bought these investments, thinking that they could lower their own interest payments. The inevitable collapse shook the finances of not just Europe, but the entire world.

Today, self-serving business interests seem to have seized the reigns of the Republican Party. This goes far beyond the conservative or liberal dispositions of voters. They are dismantling needed regulation of finance, pollution, and labor practices. They are undermining and trying to privatize public workers including teachers, law enforcement, and even the military. They are outsourcing and cutting jobs while reducing wages and benefits for those who do still work. They are making it harder for most students to get or afford the college degrees that are demanded for entry into everything but minimum-wage service jobs. And, they are even trying to eliminate the minimum wage.

Today, well into our struggling recovery from the collapse of their economic house of cards, corporate profit margins are again at record highs while U.S. wages, as a share of our economy, are at record lows. If there is “class warfare” going on, they started it. Income inequality is stunning and it is getting worse. I believe that Americans of both parties need to push back against those who are intent on compounding their private wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.

© 2012, David Satterlee

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May 312012

Our Democracy requires the participation of informed citizens. How do citizens become competent to become active in government, working to create a better country for their neighbors? Education at home and at school is a key factor.

A successful democracy assumes that people are basically good and decent should make responsible choices for themselves. Without the general moral and intellectual capacity of its citizens, it would be impossible for a constitution to grant universal citizenship and self-governance.

Parents and schools are expected to bring out the best in our children. The best involves more than prescribed knowledge and obedience to authority; it includes self-knowledge, self-discipline, and the enduring desire to keep on learning. We hope to maximize every child’s potential. We want every person to have the liberty and ability to pursue the adventure of a productive and satisfying life. Further, we expect that the success of every person contributes to the collective success of our communities and our nation.

As children develop into mature adults, they should be able to understand their beliefs, form personal opinions, explain themselves, consider the needs of others, and make decisions that produce good results. Especially today, when few find secure employment for life, we need to be able to think critically about new situations, solve new problems, and work successfully with previously-unknown people.

It is not enough for a student to simply acquire the skills of a trade. Graduates need to be equipped with an expanded perspective and the mental flexibility to make their way on the unfamiliar landscape of our rapidly-changing world. This kind of preparation allows them to recognize and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Even better, this kind of preparation allows them to network socially, work well in a group, maintain supportive relationships, and actually create opportunities.

Critical thinking should not be the private tool of the privately-educated elite. Critical thinking should be one of our most cherished values, and the birthright of every child willing to apply themself. Critical thinking should be an expected product of a rich family life. Critical thinking should be the core competency delivered by our public schools.

Some may recoil from all this be-the-best-you-can-be and prepare-for-your-future effort. Some may be content to do what they’re told, do only what is needed to get by, and blame others for their misfortunes. Some may realize that I have been describing a “liberal education,” and correctly conclude that the more of it you have, the more liberal you will likely become. Maybe that’s a good thing.

How can our individual, community, and national well-being be bad? I am convinced that we must prepare our children to successfully resist those who would take away our government of, by, and for the people. If we do not, we will see the completion of the efforts of a powerful few to seize our government and use it to enrich themselves.

©2012, David Satterlee

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Feb 042012

It occurred to me a while back that the conservative ideal of “individual freedom,” taken to its logical end, promotes anarchy. If everybody does only what appeals to them as being in the best interests of themselves, their family, or their tribe, it prevents them from fully engaging in the interests of broader civic and societal responsibility. If you are primarily looking out for yourself, you aren’t being a good citizen.

Of course, it also occurred to me that the liberal ideal of “common good,” taken to its logical end, promotes totalitarianism communism… or maybe the kind of selfless love of neighbor that Jesus endorsed. None of these extremes seem practical for America at this point in history.

Isn’t there some balance, some moderate center ground where we can meet and agree to compromise if not find consensus? If you consider American political history during the last few decades, an interesting dynamic appears. It used to be that both the Democratic and Republican parties had their liberal and conservative wings. However, increasingly, the Republican party has been swinging more and more to the radical right and adopting rigidly-held extreme positions and an unwillingness to compromise. At the same time, the Democratic party has been edging more and more toward a moderate center and adopting positions that already have compromise built in.

But, I digress. It seems that the Republican party is structured for divisiveness and conflict rather than constructive citizenship. They are a loose coalition of conservative interest groups, each tightly focused on their own subset of specific issues. They lack unity on almost every philosophy except “leave me alone.” Commentators have described these factions, giving them names such as: traditionalists, conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, moderates, and libertarians.

For example, there is the religious right that doesn’t want to have anyone disagree with their [conservative Christian] religious convictions while insisting that they press their values on others. There is the individual-liberties right that just doesn’t want to be told what to do about anything, such as register their guns or wear a motorcycle helmet. There is a blue-collar economic right that doesn’t want to have taxes collected that benefit anybody but themselves. There is the elite financial right that doesn’t want anyone to interfere with their pursuit of short-term profits. Each of these positions seems to make sense if repeated often enough and without a discussion of broader context and consequences.

This conservative disposition tends toward “Leave me alone, I’ll take care of myself and you take care of yourself,” or simply “fuck you.” (Witness the audience’s unsympathetic reactions during the GOP debates to the hard consequences on disadvantaged citizens of some candidates’ policies.) The moderate liberal center, however, tends toward “we’re all in this together.” Oddly, while this conservative position pointedly rejects the interests of others, the liberal position embraces and empathizes with the interests of others including, ironically, conservatives.

Why would the kind of conservatives described above want to get involved with any civic sacrifice that didn’t promote the interests of themselves or someone who is part of the limited group that they consider to be “us.” The difference is that liberals have a broader perception of “us.” While liberals can still embrace an appreciation for personal liberties, the moral benefits of religious faith, and the importance of family values, they are more likely to also feel heightened responsibilities for the needs of their communities, their overall nation, and others with whom they share this planet.

Very few Americans want “communism” as practiced in the former Soviet Union or in China under Chairman Mao. Nore are there very many Americans who want the kind of “cradle to grave socialism” of some European countries (despite the recent name calling against liberals by conservative candidates). But, as Albert Einstein, and generations of Complex Systems and Developmental researchers have pointed out, the significant problems that we face can not be solved at the same level on which they were created. We must come together to solve problems that are bigger than ourselves. That is why we form communities and that is why we need government. That is why we should (and do) sacrifice individual liberties for the greater good of ever-larger populations. That is why we give governments limited power to regulate our affairs and tax us so as to act for our collective welfare.

The bottom line is that, between impractical extremes, there is an important place for layers of community and government. In the balance between individual liberties and and the state’s ownership of all means of production, there exists a range of options that allow for our pursuit of happiness while remaining interested and involved in our common good. It is the urge to active citizenship. It is the position of empathy, moderation, compromise, and consensus.  It is the sweet spot of the modern American Democratic Party.

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