Cleaning up my desk this week I found an Obama ‘08 HOPE button. After a moment’s reflection, I threw it in the trash.
Not because Obama lied or betrayed those of us who hope for a more humane world, although he did both.
I recognize that lies and misrepresentations are basic tools of information management in our socially-structured, media-mediated world. We all use them to manage information in pursuit of our interests, and I see no moral utility in categorically condemning lying, disinformation or persuasion. Advertising – commercial lying -- is an accepted, if not altogether honorable, industry in our society. And the effectiveness of our news media and entertainment depend on tweaking what information is used and how it is presented.
However, the political sphere, where scarce resources are allocated, risky and expensive actions like wars or nuclear power plants are undertaken, and where the public good is defined, is another matter. If the use of tools of information management is concealed, if the interests they serve remain undisclosed, or if their use can be bought with money, democracy will be compromised and individual freedom and integrity as well as social cohesion will be threatened. When we lie to one another we betray basic social bonds that make it possible to live together and fairly share risks, resources and rewards.
Obama also betrayed us, albeit with our consent. He – and we – believed he could successfully lead changes we envisioned by managing the machinery of politics and the engines of economics. We – and he – imagined that we are one nation, with common values, goals and purposes. We fancied we had honest media, a shared morality, democratic processes, and an engaged, well-informed and discerning electorate. Oblivious of the pervasiveness and inertia of the scripts of war, evil, racism, religion and vengeance, and the myths of markets and motivations that dominate our language, discourse, news media and entertainment, we expected Obama to just push buttons, pull levers, sweep out trivia, clarify issues and generally crown our good with brotherhood ... undimmed by human tears ... in the land of the free and the home of the brave ...patriot dreams that see beyond the years...
Crown our good with brotherhood?
We’ve witnessed our neighbors cheering that an uninsured man deserves to die, asserting that teachers are only in it for the money, that God hates fags, that the poor are lazy, and that justice demands the death penalty but forbids abortion in all circumstances.
.... undimmed by human tears?
We keep our poor, homeless, hungry, jobless neighbors and uninsured sick largely invisible and humiliate them to make sure they are ashamed of their tears and get little comfort from the community.
...land of the free?
Our Constitutional rights and civil liberties have been cancelled or abridged with targeted assassinations, with torture, no-fly lists, secret surveillance of our communications, and now, corporate- designed state legislation to limit collective bargaining, suppress voting and gerrymander legislative districts.
...and the home of the brave?
We’re so brave that on 9/11/11 three people with dusky skins were taken off a plane, jailed and strip-searched by men armed with machine guns. We’re so brave we used a drone to murder Anwar al-Awlaki, a disaffected American citizen who had no discernible influence in the Arab world, was not charged with any crime, but who spoke insurrection in fluent idiomatic English. We’re so brave we cut taxes for the rich and services to the poor.
"...patriot dreams that see beyond the years..." Our politicians’ patriot dreams are of staying in office through the exploitation of resource-rich, poverty-ridden, over-populated areas of the world. Our corporations dream patriotically of endless growth, with future profits from fossil fuels, cheap labor in developing countries, and off-shore tax havens.
All our patriot dreams ignore the reality that when resources are plentiful we can have luxuries like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We forget that when populations are low we can afford peace, cooperation, equality, empathy, mutual respect and trust, and fail to notice that when too many people are competing for scarce resources – water, food, farmland, fisheries, forests, fossil fuels – we have competition, violence and wars.
But the present challenge is not social, political disintegration, nor even endless, costly wars.
It is our unsustainable mining of fossil carbon while trying for continuing economic growth for the wealthy and unchecked population growth for homo sapiens. We are already beyond repairing the systems that control the temperature of our planet, and are inexorably headed toward disintegration.
I threw away the Obama button because I’ve lost hope. It’s too late: our present structures, beliefs and habits are driving us toward extinction. Our information structures and media based on lies and misrepresentations have left us cynical, mistrustful and divided. Our beliefs in various magics – markets, powerful leaders, high-tech wizardry – have made us arrogant, and our assumptions of moral, rational and logical superiority have powered our imperialistic wars and meddling in the affairs of other peoples. Our habits of blaming or devaluing others allow us to scorn and punish those we deem worthless and deny them life, liberty and justice, education, healthy environment, equality of opportunity.
When I wrote about these issues six years ago ("Failed Democracy's Challenges Continue" CommonDreams.org July 31, 2005 http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0731-20.htm ) I concluded that although I doubted humans were clever enough to manage our own cleverness, I still hoped that ordinary people might rise up courageously and make a difference.
Today I have a slim hope that the #occupy movement, or local efforts at sustainable communities might enable us to manage our future.
But I'm not wearing any buttons.