Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

Monthly Archives: October 2010

an interview with Lawrence Goodwyn

Lawrence Goodwyn is a prominent historian and professor emeritus of history at Duke University.  His writing has been quoted extensively by progressive heroes ranging from Howard Zinn to Bill Moyers.  Alternet has posted a fascinating and highly enlightening interview with Goodwyn in which he offers some much needed historical perspective on the Obama administration and the upcoming election.

Goodwyn is decidedly more upbeat on Obama’s caliber than I have been thus far.  To me, Obama has always seemed like a fairly vacuous politician, and his actions in office to date have done little to distinguish him from the seemingly unending line of corporatist presidents our nation has been subjected to.  During the campaign he offered nothing more than hollow platitudes, and when questioned about issues as urgent as the Iraq war he refused to commit to withdrawing troops by 2013.  His performance during the drive for “health care” (that is, health insurance) reform was woeful and drastically right-of-center, as he failed to push for a public option and spent far too much time pandering to the insurance industry.

I would like to hope that Goodwyn’s characterization of Obama as a generally good-willed person learning the ropes of politics in DC is an accurate one – that Obama is trying to do the best he can, but is failing due to a warped and corrupted political process and the influence of a corporate-controlled mainstream media.  I would like to believe this, but so far I simply have no reason to do so.

On to Goodwyn’s interview.  Some highlights:

On bankers:

“For all my accumulated indignation over a half-century of unwanted experience, I now must admit that I underestimated the capacity for sheer greed that drives American banking. The evidence is compelling that a great many people within the financial community acknowledge no limits because they have a seriously atrophied loyalty to American society as a whole. I speak here of the cornerstone of the American democratic experiment itself: the sense that a majority of us have had — have always had — that we are in this thing together.

Bankers are not with the rest of us on this. Perhaps they never have been. All exceptions freely conceded, but the general reality still holds: they are killing the promise of this republic.”

On the 2010 election cycle:

“The entire country is now experiencing the GOP’s nationwide cover-up in the form of a suffocating blanket of television commercials that warps recent history along the following trajectory of sequential deceptions: 1) Obama promised jobs but thanks to his stimulus program and all his new taxes, unemployment has hit record levels. 2) Your congressman has voted consistently with Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling that enables this mammoth debt at the very time we need jobs. 3) We therefore must end wasteful spending and save America. Repeat and repeat and repeat in the rhythms achieved by the most expensive off-year political campaign ever. This is the hopeless politics of Herbert Hoover. It is just as hopeless as economic prescription because simply enough, it is a promise to do nothing.

But it is also a new form of internal American political propaganda, anonymous in origin, corporate-financed, and delivered with blanketing determination to every corner of the nation. In size and in substance it is a campaign of deception that is without comparison since the creation of the republic. It is a direct result of the most radical single judicial decision in American history, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United offering some 10 months ago in the 5 to 4 vote of the Roberts Court. Long-term, it probably dooms the Republican Party by yoking the GOP to a permanent defense of financial deregulation and the liberation of central banks from a connecting relationship to the surrounding national economy. It says goodbye to the unemployed millions. It says goodbye to ‘we’re in this thing together.'”

On Obama:

For me, Barack Obama remains a president for the ages. Larger than FDR. Larger, by far, than Teddy Roosevelt. And larger than Jefferson. He has infinite patience, far beyond his years, patience almost beyond imagining — as he powerfully demonstrated during the 2008 campaign…

We saw then that when Obama moved, he was capable of moving with great skill: his speech on race in America at Freedom Hall, Philadelphia instantly took its place alongside the Gettysburg Address. It probably will take some time before this appraisal becomes the settled wisdom of American culture but that such a day will materialize I have absolutely no doubt.”

On the upcoming Republican victory:

“The day after the coming Republican victory of 2010, the propagandists of the most expensive experiment in mass manipulation in American history will be celebrating their corporate-bought windfall. Fox News will hail the triumph of traditional values

The day after that, GOP functionaries will notice that the strong young couple residing in the White House has survived the hurricane and is ready to return to work with undiminished resolve. The GOP will also learn that the Democratic Party, its exasperation thoroughly expended, has set about to renew itself. It is a very big party that is determined to get bigger.”

One can only hope that Goodwyn’s optimism proves well-founded.

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religion is a violation of human rights

In examining our current social order through the dual lenses of careful reasoning and genuine self-awareness, it becomes readily apparent that much of our civilization is indeed rooted in primitive and animalistic belief systems that hearken back to the days of foraging for food in the jungle, living in caves and utilizing archaic stone tools.  Little by little humankind has managed to weed out various absurd assumptions and beliefs about the world the derived from an era before science and, indeed, even before the development of written language.  Slowly, painfully, we have managed to cast off some of the ridiculous notions that had dogged human cultures around the world since time immemorial:  the earth is the center of the universe, blacks are inferior to whites, slavery is tolerable, the world is plagued by ghosts and demons.  What absurdities still lie unchallenged at the foundation of our society today?  What beliefs do we cling to today that, hopefully, we will laugh at tomorrow?

The profit motive, I believe, is one such notion that our species will eventually outgrow.  It might take another 500 years, but inevitably humankind will mature to the point that such an unjust and unrewarding system is not only undesirable but indeed highly impractical; although a fortunate few may seem to flourish under such a system, in reality everyone is harmed.

But let’s look even deeper, beyond the political and economic issues of our day.  Let’s examine a notion that is so deeply ingrained in our cultural belief structure that it remains, by and large, outside the range of issues that are even open to critical analysis and logical criticism.  I am speaking, of course, about religion.

It is said that ours is a nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion, and indeed to certain extent this may be true.  It is further claimed that our founding fathers were devout Christians, and however dubious this fact might be, it is hard to  argue that the United States does have a decidedly vocal Christian population, and Christian beliefs are generally well-represented amongst our elected officials.  The pledge of allegiance, which I was entreated to recite every day as a child in school, includes the words “one nation, under God.”  Our coins contain the phrase “In God We Trust.”  Most elected officials claim to adhere to Christian beliefs; George W. Bush even claimed that God personally spoke to him.  The “theory” of evolution is openly and aggressively challenged, and the proposition of teaching the Biblical creation story in our classrooms is routinely proposed, in all sincerity, by ordinary civilians and elected officials alike.

The following graphic displays, startlingly, the percentage of religious adherents, county by county, across the United States.  The lighter shades represent lower percentages, while the darker shades represent higher percentages, with the darkest hue representing 75% and above.  The first thing one notices in observing this graphic is how dark, overall, the country appears to be; indeed, religious adherents appear to comprise the bulk of our nation’s population.  Interestingly, the bastions of lighter hues seem to coincide with those states and areas which are typically blue on electoral maps, but that is an issue to be examined in another post.

Religious adherents as a percentage of the population, county by county.

At this point, one might ask why religious adherence is such a bad thing.  Is it really harming anyone?  To this I would answer, emphatically and unequivocally, yes.  Religious beliefs have caused perhaps more harm to humankind than any other single notion in all of history.  I would argue that religious indoctrination of the young is a gross violation of human rights, and those parents who subject their children to such indoctrination should be held liable for child abuse.  I was raised a Christian and have seen first hand the psychological and emotional trauma that a religious upbringing can cause.

But beyond my personal experiences, we can simply look at the world around us to see the harm that religion is causing.  As mentioned previously, Christians are actively fighting against the teaching of evolution in schools, in favor of the teaching of “creationism.”  Let’s think about just how backwards that is, and just what the consequences of such a course of action would entail.  Evolution is not a “theory” in the sense that most associate with the term “theory.”  Evolution is basically law; we know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that it took place, and that it continues to take place.  The theory of evolution is based on solid scientific evidence, gathered and refined over the last 150+ years.  Challenging the notion of evolution is akin to challenging the very concept of science itself, which unsurprisingly, is precisely what many Christians aim to do.

The fact is, we live in a society based on science and technology.  Everything from the food we eat to the cars we drive and the medicines are derived from science.  Computers and the Internet, cell phones and iPods, all come from science, and virtually every Christian in the country enjoys these fruits of science on a daily basis.  And yet these very same Christians, who utilize the benefits of science in nearly every aspect of their lives, wish to challenge the validity of science as a way of examining the world, and return to a primitive state based on an ancient document that was written some 2,000 years ago – far more, in the case of the Genesis creation story.

And this is but one example of the damage caused by religious adherence.  Last year, I had the misfortune of spending some seven months in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Before my time there, I did not term myself an “atheist,” nor did I have any serious qualms with the world’s major religions.  I believed in the principles of freedom, and thought that people should be allowed to believe whatever ideas they wish – however ridiculous such notions might seem to me or anyone else.

The simple fact, however, and I was made painfully aware of this during my time in Riyadh,  is that religious adherents are not content to keep their beliefs to themselves, allowing others to live in their own way.  Religions throughout history have always strove to push their views and beliefs on others; religions have always sought to expand, and always squabbled with alternative belief systems and lifestyles.  And while the percentage of religious adherents who actively engage in attempts at proselytism today might be relatively small, it is a historical fact that that percentage, however small, always exists, and is always fanatical and vocal.  We have such Christian fanatics in the United States today; the Middle East is strewn with Islamic fanatics, as my time in Riyadh amply demonstrated.

Religion is but one more example of an ancient and instinctive belief which predates the dawn of science and the widespread application of critical thinking and analysis.  If one thoroughly examines any of the world’s religions, at its core one finds only ignorance, fear of the unknown, and intellectual laziness (Buddhism is, in some cases, a notable exception).  There is nothing positive about religion that deserves to be preserved, nothing that should be protected or prolonged.

It is high time we as a species outgrew the shackles of primitive religious beliefs, just as we cast off the notions of slavery, the earth-centric universe, and the ubiquitousness of ghosts and goblins.

creative expression as a human right

What would a world without the profit motive actually look like? To what ideals are we actually striving, when we talk about shrugging off primitive, animalistic instincts and consciously shaping our evolution as a civilization and as a species? It is difficult to answer these questions with any great degree of detail, since such a word would be so profoundly different from our own it would be virtually unrecognizable. Our minds in their current states are, perhaps, unable of even fathoming what a civilization would look like that was consciously designed at every level, down to the most minute detail.

But it is fairly easy to speak in generalities. We can point to the major flaws in today’s social order, and simply state that, in a better and more just world, such flaws would not exist. So, for example, when I say that the profit motive is a primitive and barbaric impulse that should be cast aside in favor of a more evolved world view, what, precisely, am I advocating?

Well, a world without the profit motive would be a world where everyone had, at the very least, enough. There would be a certain minimum standard of living provided to every human being simply for because he/she is a human being. It’s that simple. Being human entitles to certain basic rights; hence the term, woefully disregarded in our culture, human rights.

Having enough food to eat is a basic human right. Having access to clean water is a basic human right. Access to proven, effective medical care is a basic human right, and no one should be profiting from the illness of anyone. Shelter and protection from the elements is a basic human right, as is access to education and the full breadth of the knowledge base that humanity has been steadily expanding since our forefather first stood on two legs all those eons ago. And perhaps most importantly of all, the the ability to engage in creative expression is a basic right, a right that is so fundamental to what it means to be human that it is shocking our current social order has managed to survive for as long as it has.

In a wage-slavery system such as our own, people are forced to spend the bulk of their lives engaged in menial tasks, merely to fill their bellies and keep roofs over their heads. The 40-hour work-week, itself an abomination, is largely a thing of the past as most workers today devote 50 or more hours of each week to a job which is in most cases utterly meaningless.

If the supposition is correct that creative expression is a fundamental human need, what effect would this have on a person’s sense of happiness, fulfillment and personal well-being? If a person spends the majority of his/her life engaged in a task which has no real meaning beyond a cog keeping machine of capitalism functioning, can that person truly be happy? Can that person find a sense of satisfaction in life? And if not, couldn’t we classify this system of wage-slavery as a form of torture?

In an ideal society, one which is shaped around our most cherished values as fully conscious, self-aware human beings, the fundamental needs of food, water, shelter and health care would be taken care of, allowing all people of all walks of life to devote their previous time on earth to fulfilling that ancient and most crucial need of meaningful creative expression.

People often question how society would function without the profit motive. Why would people continue working and innovating, if there was no material reward for doing so? If a person does not need to work in order to feed himself and his family, why would he choose to engage in work? Such questions ignore what is perhaps the most quintessential of all human qualities: the need for creative expression. The motivation for humans to partake in meaningful activities that contribute towards the betterment of the species would not be material gain, but rather than innate need for humans to express themselves, solve problems, and expand the limits of understanding and knowledge. Few humans would be content to merely sit around their home each day eating and drinking; humans crave challenge, and nearly all humans will seek out meaningful challenges if given the opportunity to do so.

The time is long past for our schools to be extolling the virtues of capitalism and the universality of the profit motive. Parents and teachers alike must begin nurturing that curious and inquisitive nature that is present in every human child, leading children to realize that this impulse to learn and grow and express oneself is the most beautiful and fundamental of all human qualities, and that this quality in and of itself is the only motivation we need to live and prosper and grow.

choosing to be human

Perhaps the most fundamental problem underlying our current societal order relates to the simple fact, alluded to in my previous post, that we are living according to innate animalistic impulses. The most basic laws lying at the core of our civilization – and I use the word loosely – exist as mere extensions of that primitive state in which our animal ancestors lived for countless generations before we, the upstart humans, entered the scene.

Self-awareness is an incredibly new phenomenon. As far as we know, we are the only species on earth to have obtained this unique capacity, and as noted previously, as a species we are still in our infancy. We have not yet learned to fully utilize this remarkable ability, and as a result we still live according to blind primordial instinct in more ways than we perhaps would like to admit. Many of the spoken and unspoken rules of our society exist simply because they are what existed in the natural world before self-awareness was possible – before any other law but self-survival at all costs could possibly exist.

The profit motive, and everything it entails, is perhaps the most obvious example of this. As a species we were raised in an environment of natural selection through fierce, merciless competition; such competition is therefore in our very genes. Only the strong survive, because only they deserve to survive. The weak, 2 billion years of evolution screams from the depths of our primitive, reptilian brain-stems, deserve to die.

According to such a world view, the sole purpose of life is to survive, prosper, and beget still more life. Live, eat, fuck – there is no other meaning in life, according to our most base animalistic instincts. Indeed, this is largely what most animals live for, though there are varying degrees of the quality of the “living” that is done. Namely, those who are large and strong eat in abundance and have their choice of mates, while those who are small and weak struggle to find enough food to survive, and often fail to reproduce at all. Apply this model to modern civilization, and the parallels are remarkably striking.

The path that our current society is now following is but a projection of the same path that primitive life on earth has been following since the first single-celled bacterium emerged from that primordial sludge some two billion years ago. Nothing drastic has yet changed, even with earth-shattering development of self-awareness among humans, simply our species is still too young and immature to realize the import of what it has. Previously I offered the analogy of a primitive form of bird being born with wings but not understanding that its wings were intended for flight; indeed, this analogy describes our situation perfectly, for we sit in the murky depths of human suffering and strife, when all the while we could be soaring the skies of universal wealth, abundance and equality.

The difference between our current societal order based on greed and oppression is a choice. It is a choice between blindly adhering to our old animalistic instincts, failing to utilize our precious gift of critical thinking and self-insight, and looking deep within, examining our current path compared to where we’d like to be, and then consciously forging the future path of our species and our planet. It is, quite simply, a choice. No other species on earth bears that capacity for consciously shaping the course of its own evolution, but we do. And it is high time we start using it.

dissecting the profit motive

Let’s examine one of the most fundamental values of American culture:  the profit motive.  In our society, it is believed that all of human development and progress should be driven by the desire for profit.  This is what we call “free-market capitalism,” the notion that people are inherently greedy, and that progress can only be attained when the potential for vast material wealth is offered as a reward for any given action.  In other words, the sole motivation for any human being to do anything is the prospect of receiving vast sums of money in return.

At its core, capitalism is a societal extension of the concept of survival of the fittest; it is a form of social Darwinism.  Capitalism is the law of the wild applied to human society.  It is a system whereby humans behave like animals, fighting for scraps for themselves and then saying, “I got mine, so fuck you.”  If one examines the human species on an evolutionary timescale, it becomes obvious why such a system is prevalent in our primitive civilization.  Humans are an extremely new phenomenon, having come into existence only very recently on the cosmic calendar.  To summarize Carl Sagan’s great analogy from his classic Cosmos, if the history of the universe were condensed to represent one single calendar year, humans did not appear on the scene until one minute before midnight on December 31.  If you haven’t heard this analogy before, think about it for a moment.  If you have heard it, think about it again.  Really think about it.

As a species, we are still in our infancy.  Yet on this earth, we are the only species to have become self-aware.  Self-awareness, therefore, is in its infancy, still in its early, formative stages.  As a result, it is to be expected that primitive animalistic instincts are still deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.  Simply put, we just haven’t yet had time as a species to think through all of our innate instincts, some of which happen to be quite barbaric.

Capitalism is an example of an animalistic belief system that is a remnant of our primitive past.  Believing that it is acceptable for one person to flourish while another starves is reminiscent of  the pack of wolves that allows one of its members to wither away simply because it isn’t big enough or strong enough to physically compete with the others.  It is like the mother bear that allows one of her cubs to die merely because it isn’t aggressive enough to steal food from its siblings.

Now, as a civilization, is this really what we want to be?  Do you we really want our society to resemble nothing more than a slightly more complicated form of natural selection?   Is survival of the fittest truly the most desirable law of the land?  As humans who possess the capacity for self-reflection and forethought, would it not be much more preferable to examine our societal structure and develop one which is more in agreement with our highest ideals and dreams?

The problem is that there are far too many people in the world today who would view these very questions with disdain, and would respond in a predictably cynical manner; a shocking percentage of people enjoy the status quo, and take great pleasure in prospering at the expense of others.  And why is this?  The answer is intimately tied with the very reason why our animal instincts still exist today in such a prominent role.  Namely, as a species we are still evolving; we are an incomplete product.  Many people are loathe to admit this, but the simple fact is that some people are more evolved than others, just as some animals have developed evolutionary advantages over their counterparts.  The pace of evolution is not uniform; some organisms represent the cutting edge of progress, while others resemble earlier and more archaic specimens.

To put it more bluntly:  those humans who behave like animals and cling to animalistic belief systems – such as capitalism and the universality of the profit motive – do so because they are animals.  Their intellectual capacities have not yet evolved to the point where they are ready – or perhaps willing – to cast off their innate barbaric impulses in order to move beyond to a reflective, intuitive, self-aware world-view.  Such people are living based on instinct alone, and have not yet refined their thought processes to the extent that they are able to live truly autonomously.

Before I am accused of being a bigot, or a racist, or some such absurdity, let me clarify that I am not suggesting that these people are physically deficient in any way, by dint of their genes or other innate characteristic.  Any organism that meets the criteria to be classified as a homo sapiens also bears the capacity for critical thought and self-awareness.  In other words, any human being, by definition of being human, possesses the ability for self-reflection and critical insight.

However, it seems that our genetic predisposition is to be naturally animalistic and aggressive in nature; survival of the fittest, capitalism and the profit motive are apparently the default settings for our brains.  Those people who still cling to such antiquated and  primordial belief systems do so simply because they have not yet utilized their newly-evolved human brains enough to move into the realm of genuine self-awareness.  They are like a newly-evolved bird who fails to use its wings to fly; the bird possesses the capacity to fly, yet lacks the breadth of self-understanding necessary to do so.

So the next time someone extols to you the virtues of our capitalistic, every-man-for-himself system, just chuckle quietly to yourself and reflect on the fact that this person, though human in guise, has the thought patterns of an animal.

A brief word about influences

It might already be readily apparent to some what my influences are, but in the interest of intellectual honesty, let me divulge a little bit about my reading habits.

Sadly, with the sad state of our media I have had great difficulty in locating what I would consider to be reliable sources of information. As a result, when I find one such source, I tend to rely on it perhaps a little too heavily. Case in point: Noam Chomsky. I read anything by Chomsky that I can get my hands on, and my world view is heavily shaped by his writings. Now, some people may deride Chomsky and question the veracity of his work. My typical response to such critics is this: open any given Chomsky book, find some point you find particularly unbelievable, locate his source using one of the plethora of citations he unfailingly includes in every publication, and check the accuracy of his statement for yourself. I’ve issued this challenge more times than I can recall, but never has anyone returned to me with a single example of a factual error or distortion in Chomsky’s work.

Aside from Chomsky, I often peruse the NY Times for a sampling of the MSM’s mood on any issue on any given day. For a more accurate perspective, although woefully limited in scope, I am a regular reader of Alternet.org. In terms of historical perspective, I was a big fan of Howard Zinn and his People’s History of the United States. Beyond that, I read an assortment of what would be considered “leftist” blogs, which I will inevitably end up linking to here.

My political views are decidedly left-leaning; some might even consider my views “extreme.” I would like be dubbed a socialist, Marxist, or pinko-commie scumbag by a broad range of the American public. However, I generally try to avoid such shallow political labels, and instead prefer to deal with broader ideas and ideals. I have not read the works of the great political thinkers of the past. I have not read Marx or Engels, Adams or Locke. Undoubtedly some of their ideas might surface in my writing, but I have not read them. I am not claiming to be privy to any unique or fantastic insights; countless others undoubtedly share my views and ideas, but until now I’ve encountered very little sources that openly proclaim them. And so I write this blog, to fill what I see as a drastic void in the American – indeed global – cultural dialogue. We need to stop focusing on the trivial and start dealing with broader themes and concepts. In other words, we must cease our squabbling over minute details of the present and instead envision the world we want to live in, regardless of how unrealistic it seems, and then reverse-engineer that world in order to devise the steps required to realize it.

And that, my friends, is the lofty task I have in mind in writing this blog. It is my sincere hope that others will join me in my utterly naive and seemingly impossible task.

Introduction

The title says it all, folks. It is my contention that we are living in a failed state, that the current social order has long surpassed what feeble potential it ever offered.  We have long since reaped the benefits the current system might have offered, and are well into the territory of harvesting its detriments alone.

In writing this I am reminded of a scene from that prescient novel Ishmael, in which Daniel Quinn offers the analogy of learning to fly through various means. In the early days all seems well, and indeed, we appear to be flying. It is only as the ground rushes up to meet us that we suddenly realize the earth below our broken wings is strewn with the wreckage of countless previous attempts at flight, and with a shudder our own fate becomes readily apparent.

That analogy is more fitting today than it has ever been. Our current civilization is doomed; the very basic foundations upon which our society are built are fundamentally flawed at their deepest cores, and we are destined for failure.

Failure can be defined in a multitude of ways, and I do not mean to imply some impending catastrophe of global proportions. The world is not going to end, nor are millions (or billions) going to perish in some apocalyptic blaze. People have been predicting the annihilation of humankind for as long as humans have possessed the capacity for forethought, and I wish to make it clear that this is not what I am suggesting.

What I am proposing is that the most basic goals we have set at the heart of our society are inherently flawed, and we shall never succeed in reaching those goals. Our current empire has failed in that millions suffer from obstacles that could easily be surmounted, if not for the greed of a selfish and powerful few. Our society has failed in that it strives for unrealistic and meaningless outcomes, ignoring the most basic human traits of love, compassion, and the innate need for creative expression.

This blog will represent my exploration of this epic failure, and will outline my own views as to what we should be striving for instead, and how we might eventually realize this vision of a more just and humane world.  Please forgive any seemingly unrelated ramblings along the way.

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