Friday, May 25, 2012

Democracy by Superstition and Acquiescence

It's Not the First Time

Will Durant in his "The Story of Civilization,"  described life during the times of the Dark Ages in Europe.  As sunset progressed the massive doors were shut and bolted to protect those inside the huts and shabby cabins.  A candle might be lit for a few minutes, but even that was an expensive luxury.  By the time the sun had set and darkness prevailed outside, the residents were ready for sleep.  Work would begin the next day before dawn -- every day.

The night, absolutely devoid of any man made light whatsoever, was simply too dangerous for any but the most compelling, necessary venture beyond the relative safety of the locked and sealed house.  No one could read, and there were no books beyond the monastery, the castle or the cathedral, so there were no reasons to burn an expensive candle.

The days of back breaking work were filled with the rapacious violence of the genetic nobility, the terror of a superstitious religious mythology designed to crush any impulse beyond pious suffering and the constant, nagging prospect of starving to death, freezing to death, being killed by marauders or simply getting sick.  The nights were inhabited by the hideous characters of old wives' tales, demons, damnation, devils, the eternal torment of hell and hungry wild animals.

It was a torturous Juggernaut of illiteracy, deception and imperious control.  It went on like this from the fall of the Empire in 515 AD or so until the Renaissance 800 or 1,000 years later.  Life expectancy was dismal -- 30 years average growing to 45 during the Renaissance.

So, what's the point?

The point is in the similarity with modern times.  The Dark Ages, considered as a "career opportunity" for the Church and the noblemen, could only extend as long as the dreadful mythological superstition and illiteracy permitted.  When Middle Ages style learning began again with the Italian Renaissance, the surviving victims of Dark Ages Europe abandoned their relentless oppression as immediately as possible.

This means that they were on their way out of Durant's "Deathly Silent Medieval Darkness."  This MeanMesa posting is about us -- on our way back into it.

Paying the Full Price of Decades of Uninspired Failure

Although the American public education system seems to have functioned much better in even the recent past, it's clear that it was never designed to produce immense numbers of intellectual giants.  A few such cases, it was always assumed, would be enough.  The remainder of the system's human products would be educated enough to "look after themselves," work productively and indulge in the patient joys of the Third Planetary Imperative to one extent or another.

Even the modestly educated could, should they desire, engage their curiosity, temp their energetic imaginations and even be fairly well informed.  In fact, often these qualities even became something of a competition.  Each citizen was expected to be interested in something, and, occasionally, startling innovations and inventions would crystallize in academically unanticipated quarters.

This was a necessary thing, too.  The social culture we were tempted to build and compelled to operate required this kind of wide spread literacy and curiosity.  The people of the United States had to be educated to be able to operate the United States.  Of course there were errors and deceptions, but when viewed over the centuries, we became more and more "savvy" every year.

However, now we find ourselves in the midst of a massive cultural process which simply can not be sustained without this large, majority population of literate citizens.  And further, by "literate," MeanMesa means much more than the bare necessities of being able to read and write.  Please consider the full implication of such "literacy" far more robust than just these two criteria.

The design, construction and operation of factories and farms requires this kind of literacy.  The maintenance of and participation in a national economy requires this kind of literacy.  In fact, membership in an "informed electorate" requires this kind of literacy.

Yes, we can start with the reading and writing, but sooner or later we will have to add curiosity and imagination.  All the memories of ideas and revelations of a lifetime must be present for the next step.  When those memories and revelations are, shall we say, mortally limited, the "next step" is a short one indeed.  If this intellectual and emotional "background" has been stupefied by an education and exploration which simply don't work, the "next step" looks like it must be a "step backwards."

Canterbury - Botticelli (image source)

So, let's define "literacy" -- at least in the sense of this posting.

Literacy means access the amount of knowledge required for an individual to be able to perform the presumed functions of the modern social culture.  Literacy doesn't mean simply that this knowledge is available in one's memory because of the educational process.  Instead, it means that this individual can either discover what he needs to know or understand or simply figure it out from what he already has at hand.  Both of these traits remain comfortably within the general boundary of mechanical academics.

Right here, however, we have to "drill down" a little deeper into the process. Even when the "mechanical academics" have been put in place -- that is, even when an individual citizen has learned all sorts of information, placed it in his memory, mastered the process of adding specific additional information to his working assets when needed and even drawing some kind of conclusion from what's then available -- there are other, still more fundamental, traits necessary for a good result.

This posting could be yet another MeanMesa ranting and railing session about education, but it's not.  This posting is about stupidity.  That harsh word is selected not as a clever condescension, a terse description of a village idiot, but, instead, as a metric to compare a European peasant farmer in the South of France in 1,000 AD to a modern "20's something" high school graduate dry wall installer.

Democracy-wise, this is us.  (image source)

A Citizen's Quality of Being

If more or less strictly educational results are the metric by which a citizen's literacy might be measured, the endeavor becomes conveniently finite.  The details can be placed on paper.  There are degrees, grade point averages and maybe even letters from notable teachers.  After school there is the record of this education in action, although MeanMesa begins to draw the line between an automatic expectation of success after schooling and a student's successes during the process.

There remain some other, more basic variables to be considered.

What is the quality of the being of this individual?  Education, no matter how exquisite, becomes mere training without corresponding advances in the quality of being.

Once we cease our examination and judgment of the track of an individual's more obvious accomplishments, we are left with the challenge of evaluating his personal nature -- the quality of his being.

Is he consistently and spontaneously inquisitive -- that is, is he curious even in cases where the knowledge to be garnered is not directly or immediately relevant to any immediate challenges in his life?

Is he demanding?  When confronted with paradoxical information, is he passive or does he demand a resolution to the contradiction?  Does he place a high value on resolving contradictions he encounters in his reality?

With this unusual kind of definition of "literacy," even a little more explanation may be needed.  We, traditionally, think of "literacy" as an accomplishment, the end result of a series of educational efforts.  In the broader sense in this posting, we might reasonably add the efforts which lead to an aggregate of knowledge, information or even conjecture some of which might accumulate based on the "literate" ability but also which might accumulate from, simply put, the experiences of the general passage of time.  [Gurdjieff refers to this broader, curiosity centered type of activity as a product of a magnetic center.]

Quickly moving beyond this admittedly theoretical model, it's time to look over some modern examples of this "literacy" in action.  Let's consider three important areas where this nature of a voter might be observed.  Remember -- we are examining the ability of citizens to successfully operate all aspects of the nation's social culture.  In each case we will also note the mechanism by means of which each phenomenon is exploited.

In the sense of this posting, that exploitation reveals the quality of being.

1. Politics

In the current election campaign, especially on the Republican right, the nature of the base of the party's voters is being revealed.   In this election season, we are -- really for perhaps the first time to such a degree -- seeing contradictory information being presented as settled fact. 

The audiences receiving these "facts" may or may not know that what they are hearing is fundamentally contradictory to other "facts."  The reactionary side is willing to simply prevaricate a bit, biasing otherwise noncontroversial assertions or out rightly lie.  The GOP's are willing to do this exactly because their base -- largely illiterate -- will not "demand" the information to resolve the paradox.

MeanMesa suspects that many of the under educated Republican base voters are actually aware of the contradictions, but are still not only willing to adopt the suspicious side, but blindly run with it, most likely lubricating the otherwise abrasive logic problems with a soothing racism.

Previously in the history of the "informed electorate," when a voter heard a lie or even something merely suspicious  -- even from his own candidate -- he would demand the information to resolve the conflict or he would lower the over all credibility of the candidate he used to support.  In such times, paradoxes were recognized as the dangerously destructive things they were.  The acceptance of the credibility of such "bent facts" represents a serious national security issue.  The country has a great capacity to solve the challenges and problems confronting us, but voters have been led to believe that challenges other than the reality based variety are confronting us and they have ceased demanding that these differences be resolved.

The mechanism:  cynicism

Cynicism:  The presumption of deception.

The US electorate has been carefully groomed to cynicism with respect to all politicians.  The mechanism is more deeply saturating to voters without sufficient knowledge, intention or curiosity to detect or resolve contradictions.  The hatred of government and the cynical presumption that government cannot constructively function is evidence of the prevalence of this mechanism.

Considered more broadly, the cynicism has transformed the electorate into a strange amalgam of involuntary, yet grotesquely willing, detachment from the decisions which will define our future.

2. Economy

The admitted complexity of a modern economy explains only a little of the electorate's willingness to embrace contradictory or paradoxical propaganda concerning economic issues.  Two quite injurious factors have been relentlessly promoted to pursue the exploitative possibilities of touting economic plans which are essentially nonsensical.

The first is the idea that comprehending the economy is quite difficult and risky.  "Risky?"  Yes, incorrect conclusions about economic principles can be materially devastating, but also, quite embarrassing, a grave possibility in such a rapaciously codependent culture. 

The second is that an effort to develop a comprehensible model of economic matters requires far too much work.  In fact, a basic, workable understanding of the economy has been slowly redefined as an unattainable goal for any but those specifically educated in the discipline.  The electorate has slowly migrated to the position that the "incomprehensible" nuances of this science must be delegated exclusively to those educated to "comprehend" it.

Manipulative fear mongering, false revelations of economic "adversaries," savage over simplification of economic issues into incendiary "talking points" and an intentionally confusing application of broadly misconceived ideology have all served to disguise pressing economic realities among the electorate.

Now, almost any economic argument can be presented with whatever "factual" economic data might be required -- all quite safe from refutation as any threats to such schemes hide behind the intellectual malaise of a passive audience, already exhausted and cynical, with no particular interest or ability to further research such claims.

Unhappily, that passive electorate retains the Constitutional power to give such schemes "legs."  Happily, that electorate also has the Constitutional power to do otherwise if it is interested enough to find the candidates required and elect them.

The mechanism: tacit acceptance

Once the proposition that our economy can only be understood by certain members of our society becomes credible, what follows is a bizarre style of lethally self-destructive, stoic detachment.

3. National Policy

The United States, for better or for worse, finds itself in the unenviable position of being powerful and complex and yet less and less capable of coherently directing its wealth to the needs of its -- still powerful -- electorate.  National policy, in the sense of this posting, includes foreign relations, military policy and all sorts of domestic policy.  All these areas are, at least, ostensibly, directed to the "general welfare" of the people and the country.

The continuing validity of that "direction" is guaranteed by the representative structure of the Constitution.

This posting has already discussed the poor influence of cynicism and tacit acceptances as these have legitimatized departures from this representative discipline.  The "third shoe to fall" can be illuminated by this third example.

Although press freedom is one of the pillars of Constitutional freedom, the document finds its modern application almost perfectly backwards.  It's not an over reaching government which has disabled the free press, it is the languishing demands of its subscribers.

If trust in politicians is subverted by cynicism, and if management of the economy is placed "out of reach" by the relentless argument that it is incomprehensible, national policy has come to be protected by its elite secrecies.  Behind every national policy decision are justifying secrets to which the electorate has no access.

Foreign policy decisions which don't seem to make sense are lubricated into more acceptability by the induced presumption that those in power are privy to facts unavailable to the rest of us.  Worse, even after the tragedy and mayhem of utterly nonsensical wars, the electorate has been persuaded to continue to believe this.  The electorate has been groomed to validate all sorts of things based on this strange credulity -- valid secrets, valid authority, valid decisions, validated inevitability.

The mechanism:  inaccessible reality

Once established as "the way things are done," the descent begins.  Worse, any suspicions about these "secrets" as the determining parameters of policy decisions grows more and more lax the longer this prevails.

MeanMesa's Conclusions

This entire argument is both incited by Mitt Romney's Presidential campaign and vindicated by it.  Day after day, very clearly refutable "factual" propositions quite a few even brazen enough to be accompanied by actual numbers -- are made to a very suspiciously eager media.  There are almost no challenges to even the most outlandish statements.  The portrait of this candidate presented by his campaign should not be palatable to even the most conservative supporter, yet, it all seems to be quite easily consumed by a very unusual, also strangely eager, base in the electorate.

The absurdity of our demise is screaming at us.

We have chosen politics -- inevitably complete with all its warts and bruises -- to be the mode of managing our democracy.  We have degraded ourselves -- our being -- to a place which makes political problem solving impossible.  We have ceased to either strive for the competency to run the politics or recreate what we have into a politics which can be run.

We blindly depend on our economy for food, protection and satisfaction, yet we have allowed ourselves to sink to a point where we cannot comprehend it -- to where we fear to even attempt to comprehend it.  We patiently and perpetually acquiesce to one outrage after another.  We respond to the outrages with cynicism and hopeless stoicism. We don't strive to comprehend the economy we have, and we don't act to make our incomprehensible economy comprehensible.

We abandon the prospect of being served by national policy, and we justify our desolate detachment with complaints about access to the information and understanding which purportedly drives its decisions.  We strive neither to increase our access and participation nor remake policy so that we can participate.

This glimpse of the state of our democracy's electorate paints a picture of psychopathological madmen scuttling about in a suicidal frenzy but still, at least for the moment, cowering from the fear of that final brief pain.  Yes, there are villains, but we are all willing parties to the madness.

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