Americans Fighting for the Good

I’ve been having many discussions about our dysfunctional society. Many people are drawn into such discussions because of the campaign season. But my own focus on this is fairly constant.

The reason for this is that I’ve been painfully aware for decades that I’m a dysfunctional product of this dysfuncional society. This is true for everyone, not that most ever think about it. I guess it’s just more obvious for some of us. My personal dysfunction isn’t well-adjusted to the societal dysfunction, creating a constant state of conflict.

Part 1

Someone asked me what we should do about these societal problems. He complained about what he called whining and conspiracy theories. Instead, he argued we need to strategize and organize.

Maybe this is the wrong way to think about it. We live in a society that is more obsessed with strategizing and organizing than likely any other society before in history. We aren’t lacking in that department. Doubling down on more of the same is less than inspiring, in seeking change in the status quo.

I’m not exactly arguing against anything in particular. It’s not as if, based on principle, I’m against strategizing and organizing. I just don’t see that as the impetus of change. The outward forms of politics seem more to be result than cause.

That seems key. We often confuse result for cause because the latter is easier to see. What we forget is that politics is part of society and, at the most basic level of human reality, we are society. The problems we face aren’t outside of us.

The deeper challenge is that this fundamental truth contradicts the ideological paradigm that rules our perception and thought. We don’t need to create a strategy around which to organize. That is because we are already organized. We make things unnecessarily complicated. Change will happen when we want it enough and no sooner.

Change is a bit of a mystery to us, as we are a mystery to ourselves. It’s easier for us to explain change in retrospect or at least to make up compelling stories about it. But possible future change is another matter, in particular on the large-scale. Change happen when the conditions are right. Even if we can’t force change, we can prepare ourselves to take advantage of the moment when changes begin.

Fortunately or unfortunately, our society is in the middle of major changes at this moment. There is both danger and opportunity. The greatest danger might be simply not realizing what is happening. I see many people acting as if nothing has really changed or else not grasping what is changing. Before strategizing and organizing, what we really need is awareness and understanding.

Otherwise, our attempts at action will be flailings in the dark. We might just hurt ourselves in the process.

Part 2

The above mentioned person further responded. He told me that he is a fighter. Giving some details, he explained that he had been in activism for 6 decades, including starting 3 non-profits for social justice. I applaud that dedication, that willingness to fight against injustice. Still, it doesn’t begin to touch upon the deeper issues we are faced with.

I felt compelled to point out that, in the 6 decades he has been strategizing and organizing, many of the most major problems have been getting worse: mass incarceration, militarized police state, endless wars, millions of innocents dead, military-industrial complex, centralization of power, concentration of wealth, economic inequality, decreasing economic mobility, shrinking middle class, stagnating and dropping wages, loss of good benefits and job security, capitalist corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, cronyism, revolving door between big biz and big gov, regulatory capture, environmental destruction, mass extinction, climate change, etc.

One of the problems is people on all sides are strategizing and organizing. Even those with massive wealth, power, and influence are strategizing and organizing in their causing all of these problems. It’s like raising more money for the Democrats, as Republicans raise more money as well. Maybe the problem is that all that money is corrupting politics, for all sides.

The entire mentality is dysfunctional, always fighting as if society was a battlefield in a war to be won. We have a war on poverty, on crime, on drugs, and on and on. In the end, we are at war with ourselves. This makes for endless conflict. Maybe the problem isn’t a population that lacks a fighting spirit. We Americans love to fight, whether against foreigners or other Americans.

Part 3

Here is the moral calculus of our society.

Most people want to think of themselves as good people. They will often even do good things, contributing to their communities and the larger society. This makes them feel good and, in many cases, people are genuinely helped. Progress and betterment does come from all of these acts of compassion and concern. This should be praised for what it accomplishes.

Yet many of these people are partisans and will consistently vote for establishment politicians who are inseparable from major societal and global problems. It’s never been clear to me that the good these people do in their volunteering, donating, and fundraising outweighs the bad that has been done by the politicians they support.

If someone supports a politician who has contributed to the harm of millions of people (war casualties, sanction victims, families and communities wrecked by destabilized societies, citizens terrorized by propped-up authoritarian regimes, refugees of violence and climate change, neoliberal economic problems, mass incarceration, militarized police, etc), how many other people would they have to help to outweigh the harm they’ve helped cause?

That is a serious question that few think to ask or have the moral courage to answer.

Then I consider the societies like the Nordic countries, specifically as I’m reading a book about them right now (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Those are healthy social democracies and simultaneously they have low rates of volunteering. Nordic parents, for example, send their kids to some of the best schools in the world and would never think of volunteering at the local school. Living in a culture of trust, they simply trust the teachers will do their job well and they don’t worry that the schools will be underfunded.

It’s occurred to me that high rates of volunteering is only necessary in a society with systemic dysfunction like the US. More well-functioning countries would effectively deal with such problems on a systemic level, preventing many problems that Americans allow to fester. We Americans are better at reacting to problems than preventing them or catching them before they get bad.

This is seen most clearly in the American South. It is the region of some of the highest rates of donating and volunteering. But it is also the region of the worst of social problems.

Maybe those two are connected. If so, maybe we need to rethink how we deal with problems in American society, how we do good.

Conclusion

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of Happiness is enshrined in one of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. We are free to pursue it, but we are not guaranteed it. I find it interesting that the Nordic social democracies apparently don’t have any official declarations about pursuing happiness and yet it doesn’t stop them from rating among the happiest societies.

Americans are always warring against and fighting for various things. Similarly, Americans are always seeking and never finding. We are a restless people, never satisfied. Without conflict and struggle, what purpose would we have?

It’s hard for us Americans to imagine anything else.