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Cut the 'Nonsense' for a Decent Society
"When things fail, then it's time to ask questions, fix the problems and redesign the system so it works for everyone. That's the challenge of the day."
-- Muhammad Yunus, creator of micro-credit and the Grameen Bank, (9/3/09)
A Reuters news story of September 6 starts: "President Barack Obama's drive to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system has created opportunities and risks for key members of both political parties ..."
For key members of both political parties? What about the rest of us? What politicians risk in healthcare reform is their campaign contributions and their affluent life styles. What thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans risk in not changing the system is their health, their homes, possibly their lives.
In response to my columns, I receive comments (mostly anonymous) detailing how the threats of socialism, liberalism, national debt, or godlessness are far more dire than a few irresponsible losers reaping the consequences of their own folly and weakness. I hear from some who parse freedom as the liberty to profit from the needs or misfortunes of others, some who assert that we must get rid of government and taxes, and some who just tell me to STFU.
This summer a new "Army Experience Center" (costing $13 million) was opened in Philadelphia to communicate the Army's "mission, values, resources and career opportunities." It provides teens the chance to be killers using "high-action simulators" (http://www.thearmyexperience.com/ ; http://www.army.mil/-news/2008/09/02/12072-army-experience-center-opens-... )
Presently the Obama administration is considering escalating an eight-year-old war in Afghanistan that many people are calling a "quagmire" or "another Vietnam." Robert Fisk, in "Everyone Seems to Be Agreeing with Bin Laden These Days" (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/09/19 ) bluntly calls Afghanistan a failure based on a "logic of nonsense"
Indeed, one or another logic of nonsense underlies most of our present failures in war, health care, the economy, foreign relations and global ecosystems. A major nonsense is that we can fix problems and redesign systems by spending money and resources for war and technologies for killing and controlling humans we have deemed undesirable.
But the most pervasive nonsense is in our public discourse: accusations, rants and taunts about how bad the other guys are - how stupid/ deluded/ crafty/ lying they are, how our facts are better than their facts, how they are blind, greedy, irresponsible, racists, brainwashed, vicious, depraved, etc, while we are clear-sighted, generous, responsible, unbiased, reasonable, honest, etc. At all levels from letters to the editor and town hall meetings to national media, the emphasis is on discrediting, marginalizing, humiliating, even brutalizing those we disagree with or disapprove of.
We entertain ourselves and our children with fictions of unspeakable violence, and spend more money on ways to kill and injure people than on saving lives and helping people, and assume that the realities propagated by TV programming are all there is to the real world.
We've forestalled friendly open relations with others and suppressed accommodation, compromise, or working together for practical goals. We've pretty much destroyed solidarity, consensus, collegiality, or shared values. We've built walls of distrust and suspicion, planted thickets of thorny but largely irrelevant arguments to keep us from making things work better for everyone.
For a decent society, we need civil discourse among competent, compassionate, moral, reasonable citizens who are confident that they can work with their neighbors. We need leaders we can respect, and respectful conversations on issues that matter.
One of the best times of this century was just after we had elected Obama, and we were proud that we had come together and elected a president who shared our goals, our questions and our hopes for fixing the problems we face.
But today Obama, Congress and the media seem to be caught up in logics of nonsense propagated by private sector. I see this as a systemic instability in public discourse and decision-making introduced by the private, for-profit sector: money. When money is the only measure of goodness or success, then money becomes the only source of respect or self-respect, and only the wealthy are worthy. We've seen this in our foreign policy, our for-profit wars, and, of course, the health care debate. The private sector tends to define success by their own bottom line and executive compensation, not by the common good, and is not controlled by public scrutiny of spending nor answerable to voters in elections.
I believe we're better than we give ourselves credit for. I hope so, because it's up to us. The private sector won't do it; our President and Congress can't do it. We-the-People must somehow rebuild the social capital of honest communication and consensus, restore our self-respect and our respect for others, find common ground and common resources, and the confidence that we can make things work.