Reflection 67: Coma

February 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Trust Jonathan Schell to speak the truth. His “Obama and the Return of the Real” (The Nation, February 9, 2009, pages 18-22) spells out the commonality between five current crises—economic, ecological, energy/natural resources, military/nuclear armaments, and American colonialism. “All the crises,” says Schell, “display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions.” He calls this endemic spread of delusion, “a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life.” He sketches details of the story yet to be told:

 

of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

 

I call this collapse of trusted institutions a massive failure of consciousness. It’s not so much that regulators have failed to impose standards from the outside as that individuals have failed to exercise judgment in consciously and deliberately regulating their own behavior from the inside. The attitude has been to do what you can get away with when no one is watching. Hence the urge to privatize and deal secretly with matters which rightfully should be conducted in the open as public affairs.

 

Through the deeds of its most powerful leaders and institutions, influential Americans have worked their way into a frame of mind where short-term, personal self-interest has been designated the highest priority. This is cited as a basic economic principle put forward by no less a figure than Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776). But the context for that notion was Smith’s earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he wrote:

 

The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interest of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state or sovereignty of which it is only a subordinate part: he should, therefore, be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the universe, to the interest of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director (Prometheus Books, page 346).

 

Where have you ever seen that idea cited as the true foundation on which he built the liberal national capitalism put forward in the later book? Yet in Wealth of Nations itself he wrote this:

 

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society (Modern Library, page 482, italics added).

 

Without placing that quotation in the context of the prior one, it reads as if Smith is advancing the notion that self-interest determines what is advantageous to society, whereas he is saying just the opposite, that what is beneficial to society determines what is to each individual’s advantage and governs how he should exert himself. The image of the invisible hand that Smith introduces three pages later is not the hand of self-interest but that of an implicit, moral and social influence transcending self-interest.

 

The perpetrators (who wove the five crises into what Schell calls “a kind of Gordian knot”) all operated within the same frame of mind which regards personal judgment as superfluous, whereas it is truly at the core of the moral dimension of consciousness and human action. Lack of oversight is secondary when lack of personal judgment is the problem precisely.

 

Where leaders are corrupt, they corrupt the system all the way down. Where leaders are not fully conscious or responsible, the institutions they head become brain dead and operate in a coma.

 

Waving the banner “Make Obama Fail,” the coma-stricken Republicans are gleefully stonewalling Obama’s efforts at recovery, taking joy in balking his efforts however they can. Rather than solving the nation’s problems, they are compounding them. In lockstep frame of mind, they take pride in putting their judgment to sleep, which is exactly what their leaders tell them to do. They think they are playing a game when the global situation calls for hard labor.

 

That is the cause of the five crises: playing games to score the most points. As if life were a game. Bush-Cheney did it for the sake of personal power. What they did was turn our democracy into a dictatorship for the duration of their reign. Enron tried it. Wall Street got good at it. The mortgage industry did its best. Energy and transportation industries play their parts. Backed by the pentagon, the arms industry kills people—foreigners and Americans alike—as if they were so many pawns in a game of chess.

 

This is worse than a delusion. It is a crime against the Earth and all life.

 

As for the rest of us, we take the Do Not Disturb sign on the doors of our great institutions quite literally. Don’t make waves. It isn’t patriotic. So we don’t. Which is how we put ourselves into a stupor all by ourselves. As if it were our duty to self-administer drugs to dull our senses. We are in this together because we are all half-asleep.

 

Failures of consciousness all round! Until we come to grips with that one, the situation isn’t going to get any better. Who’s to revive us? There’s nobody here but us chickens.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is there such a thing as a meeting of minds? Can community consciousness exist? I do know that groups can take concerted action, some by the will of the majority, some by consensus, some by executive decision. But what does that say about community consciousness?

 

What strikes me about the seven of us is that we’re all coming from different directions. We’re here to suggest topics for a statewide committee* in Maine to focus on in coming months, but so far each of us has proposed a different topic. It’s early in the meeting. I’ll just sit back and watch the process develop. Except I’m always the first one to open my mouth. What have we got so far? Pri says we have to move the state toward a moral economy (implying that the economy we have now is immoral). Robert says global warming is at crisis stage and is priority number one. Don’t forget health care, says Carole. The system we have isn’t working. I say, we need to educate our children for tomorrow, not yesterday as we are currently doing. Don’t forget the energy crisis, says Robert, it’s hitting everybody, now, this winter. In his calm voice, Gray says taxation is a statewide issue; we need a paradigm shift so we can buy collectively and pay less than we do on our own. That brings up whether or not capitalism has a chance of working, says Ed, which so far is not supported by the evidence. I say, don’t forget the environment which is footing the bill for all our past and present excesses. Whatever happened to compassion, says Jan, the we in we the people? We can’t pretend we can go it alone on rugged individualism. Look where that’s got us. And so it goes for a couple of hours, round and round the room, Ed taking notes all the while. The case management approach is expensive. Buy collectively, buy better. Social responsibility is a responsibility to share. Have taxes pay for programs that work. Whatever happened to enlightened self-interest—as an alternative to greed? The issue is not I have but we have together. What taxes? Sales, capital gains, income? Beware those who secretly believe in eugenics, survival of the fittest, and superior races ruling over their inferiors. But then in the last half hour the group comes together. Community. Cooperation. Compassion. Empathy. United we stand, divided we fall. One for all, all for one. Fairness and equity. Yes, we can! The moral economy is a we economy. Global warming and the energy crisis are we problems. Health care is a we issue. Educate for we awareness and mutual accountability. Taxation provides the wherewithal to turn this population of assorted individuals into a we nation. Nobody owns the environment; it has to be managed for the benefit of all species—the Big We, including humans. That’s the way Maine has to go. The state seal features the North Star at the top, with the motto Dirigo—“I lead.” Make that we lead. How to do that, that’s the conversation we want to get moving in this state.

 

There’s no way I can truly represent a conversation that evolved over two-and-a-half hours, so this attempt is largely fiction informed by truth. What it leaves out is the sense of struggle in listening to one another and to one’s inner self at the same time. Community consciousness, if it exists, is hard-earned, temporary, and specific to a given occasion. It has to be painstakingly built up over the duration of each and every occasion. But I do believe that seven minds can eventually attain a kind of resonance so that each voice speaks to and for the collective mind of all seven. At least that’s what we seem to have achieved.

 

One thing I haven’t said: we aren’t strangers coming together for the first time. We’ve known one another for fifteen years, coming together some fifty times a year since 1994. We know who we are and trust who we are. That makes a big difference. We’ve settled on a common language that works for us all. Which makes it easier to hear and feel what is being said. We’re all unique individuals, but we can eventually settle into a group that works together.

 

Different as we are, do we share a kind of consciousness in common? I think, yes, a consciousness earned through numerous encounters and discussions over the years. Our approach now is cooperative more than competitive. Which suits us to our times as an alternative to the temper of independence that has put the nation in the state we find today—near total collapse.

 

The scary part is how long it takes to develop community consciousness that emphasizes common interests over winning and personal selfishness. It takes decades to turn making a killing by oneself into making a living together. In fluid communities, people move in and out faster than the group requires to reach a workable level of cohesion. Even members of Congress aren’t around long enough to learn how to be effective in working together. And that favors a two-party system which outlasts them all—and distinctive party lines impervious to any impulse to compromise, much less cooperate. Our system of governance balks the gradual evolution of community consciousness on a national level.

 

Which leaves us where? Raising the hood, looking down at the motor which runs our political and economic systems, wondering where we went wrong, and what we can do now to get moving again.

 

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* Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection 52: Inauguration

January 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Inauguration! Think what it means to make a new beginning under favorable auspices. Augurs foretell the future through the reading of signs, then usher in that future by steering the course of public events. If the signs are not favorable, events are put off until the situation improves. Joy has been stifled in this nation for eight years. Today, hope is the watchword, for today Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of the United State of America.

 

Yes, America’s first black president. That is auspicious in itself. But Obama is more than that. He has not been elected solely because he is black but too because of his spirit, intelligence, understanding, and abilities. As a matter of fact, he is black.

 

In a democracy, the powers look not to flights of birds or animal tracks as signs but to the collective voice of the people. We are those powers—the augurs of today. The people have spoken. Let the celebration begin! Millions are attending inaugural events in the nation’s capitol with great expectations. Change is in the air. Optimism is high, even as days are short, chill, and gray. Music and dancing are wholly appropriate to this splendid occasion.

 

For eight years the consciousness of the American people has been manipulated by national leaders to suit their own purposes. Government transparency has been undone by secrecy. The national purpose has been implemented through torture and violence, not diplomacy. Imagine waging a preemptive war to spread freedom and democracy! Initially, the people went along because their leaders played on their fears. September 11, 2001 was a terrifying day. Needing to make a bold response quickly, our leaders took an old plan off the shelf and prepared to invade Iraq, hoping no one would notice that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the Twin Towers attack. They also diverted public attention from their confusion by telling people to spend in the national interest. But when spending and fighting led only to more violence and chaos, the people no longer believed what their leaders were telling them. They opened their eyes and saw for themselves.

 

Come to their senses, along with their true feelings and judgment, the people of America deliberately selected the Obama-Biden team to lead them, not McCain-Palin. Today, the situation is reversed. Bush-Cheney and the stupor they foist on the public are ousted. Hope founded on competence and compassion are installed in their place by the new administration taking office today.

 

Indeed, signs are favorable that the new administration will implement justice for all, not just the powerful few; true economic recovery, not undeserved pork; an era of dialogue, not military coercion. Starting today, the American people can hope to thrive again under President Obama. Their wits restored, the people can dare to be conscious for themselves and not bow to the will of a devious and aggressive elite.

 

The signs are auspicious, the time is right, the people are ready. Let the inauguration usher us into the next eight years with hope and determination sufficient to keep our minds focused on the challenges ahead.

 

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