Archive for August, 2012

Exceptionalism

Posted: August 31, 2012 in Economics, Morality, Philosophy, Politics

Attention has been drawn to the American sense of exceptionalism.  It has its roots in the very founding of the United States of America in the late 1700’s.  Of particular interest is the pedestal of extreme respect that is given to the founding fathers.  This sense of their unique and exceptional  contribution manifest itself in the way they are quoted to support divergent views of what is meant by various statements in the constitution of the US.

It is true that their creation of a nation based in law, respectful of science and independent from specific religious control was unique, a significant experiment in rule by and for the people.  We have, to date, tried to honor their intent to create a system where change takes place in an orderly process.  The process involves amendments to the imperfect original construction of the constitution thereby making it adaptive to future trends, aspirations, and knowledge.  In this sense, what they did was exceptional.

No other nation is likely to experience this same explosive development, certainly not in the same way.  One reason lies in the exceptional aspect of history, the discovery of a virgin land populated with natives ill suited to protect themselves against the diseases and tools of the “white” man.  They were unable to protect themselves, their social order, and the wealth of the nature that sustained them against overwhelming odds, pure greed and avarice.  Our founding fathers were complicit beneficiaries of their superior advantage and supposedly superior wisdom in “the ways of the world.”  In this regard, they were certainly not exceptional.

So, I see several problems in blindly accepting their exceptionalism.  First of all, they were risk takers who had abandoned their native lands to live in the possibilities and promises of this new virgin land.  They were exceptional in comparison to the known world of humans who were satisfied to live and die in their native homelands.  They were given exceptional opportunities to carve out of a comparative wilderness something new and original.  They were given a “tabula rosa“, a blank slate on which to design the relationships between humans.  From a modern perspective, they missed the boat in several areas, slavery and women’s rights.

Rather than take this to excruciating detail, I will simply note that they were regular, well read, some religious, some not, regular guys with an exceptional opportunity and some guts to put their lives and fortunes on the line to protect their special interests.  We do ourselves a disservice by seeing them as too exceptional for in doing so, we diminished ourselves, limit our own vision, do not see ourselves as capable of the intellectual work of critically thinking about not just what they were meaning, but what they started should mean today.  We may not realize that we too, given the exceptional environment might just have been their equal.  In this time of challenges on many fronts, we should see ourselves as capable of great things, of able to meet great challenges, of being equally exceptional human beings.  But, we should not see ourselves or our nation as justifying any act, moral or immoral, on the basis of Exceptionalism.  We do not deserve special treatment or special rights just because our history gave us exceptional opportunities and resources.  Rather, we ought to feel responsibility for exceptionally decent, and generous behavior, not through war, but through humble recognition of our unique good fortunate.


Democracy might be the means to extinction of the human race.

In order to deal with the environmental crisis we face, the governments of the world need to come to some sort of agreement about how to address the crisis. It does not work if only a few participate. It requires the cooperation of all the major sources of environmental contamination, in particular adding CO2 to the atmosphere.

I recall a discussion with a family member about the wisdom of groups as opposed to that of individuals. I recall reading how groups involved in decision making can reach superior outcomes. But, somehow, with regard to the environment, that does not seem to work, I think because the majority is uninformed and confused by counter forces who see no responsibility to the future residents of our planet. Who can we trust?

I include myself in this group in the sense that I frequently choose a short term comfort rather than personal discipline to sustaining a commons for all to enjoy. Since I have few resources, my impact is smaller than some, but it is this very rationale utilized by billions of earth’s inhabitants that collectively make it difficult to solve environmental problems. There are just too few people with too little power to protect the commons, the natural resources of the planet.

In personal relationships, it is sometimes easier to be accountable. Shame can be a powerful motivator. Almost all of us prefer to be held in good report with the people we know, especially those we love. But we feel little pressure from others who, because we are evolved to survive and protect ourselves, we feel must be cheating on their accountability.

So, I argue that democratic systems that involve large collections of people who have little chance of interpersonal relationships is prone to degenerate into short term decisions that are self serving, not in the interest of the whole. We may want justice, especially for ourselves, but those other cheaters don’t deserve mercy– at least that is the way democracy tends to go. The “other” is not to be trusted.

I have been involved in community organizing activities that are grounded in gaining power through seeking out the informed self-interest of groups of people and turning that self-interest (not selfish interest) into actions for change. That can work in small collective actions. But there is so much selfish interest by the larger group we don’t know, that we don’t have a relationship with, we just can’t trust others. There is plenty of evidence of mis-doings to confirm our beliefs.

So, I come to the conclusion that democratic decisions are not likely to solve environmental crisis because it is too hard to have an informed, agreeable, trust-able majority to set the direction while there are many with short term views that ignore any future consequence to their own short term goals and satisfaction. Sad to say the consequences may just lead to the end of the human species along with many others. Presently I don’t see a hopeful conclusion.   Fortunately, I don’t need hope to fight the good fight anyway.

Plant or Harvest

Posted: August 8, 2012 in Environment, Philosophy
Tags:

It seems that in every age, the people of that age have a sense of being important, of being key to what the future will bring, of being at the center, of being the ones to make decisions that will determine the future. There is a sense of self-importance.

I know how I view my own life. I am concerned about the legacy I leave behind for my children, grand children, and their progeny. When we think about how our own existence can be traced back generations upon generations to the actions of a line of living human beings and the decisions they made, we may wonder about their decisions.  Maybe their decisions were thoughtfully implemented. Maybe our own existence is the result of some unthinking action that by accident avoided dieing before one of our ancestors was conceived. Or maybe somewhere in our line of ancestors, a momentary lapse of judgment and lust conceived another of our ancestors.

I know, because I was told, that I was an accident of familial affection. I was not planned for. I am like a weed blown in from an adjacent field. I am determined to be a beneficial weed and in my own passing of genetic material to be a weed that has a positive impact on the future.

We really are not at the grand center of history. We are just one step in a long line, destined to become long ago ancestors, forgotten, but yet seeds of ideas, decisions, good works, and even genetic material.

Do we plant seeds for the next generation to harvest, or are we just living off the seeds of our ancestors and our Mother Earth, just harvesting where we did not sow, exhausting resources we did not create.  We are making day to day decisions on whether to plant for the future or harvest what others planted.  Unfortunately, many of us today do not see themselves in the context of centuries, only in the next quarterly report.