by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2007
The election is still a year away, and I'm bored with America's presidential candidates already. I'm bored because the media reports about the campaigns indicates that the candidates are talking about the wrong things. The media reports them as talking about things that are unimportant: such as how much money the various candidates are raising, who's badmouthing who, and how the various candidates are doing in the polls compared to their opponents.
(This request, the heart of this essay, concerning what politicians should talk about is part of my general feeling that questions are much more important than answers. If you ask the right questions, the right answers become obvious.)
So... what should the politicians be talking about? What should the media be reporting on? What are the right questions?
In my humble opinion, here are the questions the politicians should be talking about, and the media should be reporting on....
The root of much evil in America's social thinking of the 2000's can be laid to America's response to the 9-11 Disaster. Politicians and media have used the national trauma surrounding 9-11 to teach Americans to "be afraid, be very afraid." and this is very, very wrong.
Taking such an attitude is understandable because it's popular. It's especially popular in New York City -- the center of media and finance -- and the place where a million people got to participate in 9-11. But, being popular doesn't make it right. It is time to move on. Heck, it was time to move on on September 12th! Filling a community with fear does not make a community great.
Part of putting 9-11 behind us is dismantling the "institutions of fear" that we have built up so that we can "protect ourselves." These include:
The decision that terrorism was too... something, to be handled by America's normal legal procedures was the most poisonous choice of the post-9-11 response. The American legal system is not a fair-weather friend. It's a rock. It is... it should be the foundation of all relations in the American way.
Tossing that concept of the legal rock aside has poisoned American thinking from top to bottom. It is the poison that leads to secret police, death squads, arbitrary seizures, coverups... all those abuses of government power that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were designed to protect US citizens from. And the poison goes even further. How can you have a transparent, honest, government when the governors can seize complaining citizens without due process by calling them terrorists or drug dealers?
This "outside-the-law" poison is a terrible poison we have let lose in the name of protecting ourselves. We should stop it. We must stop it! Sadly, we will have to work hard now to reverse it. The promise of security offered by the ability to take extralegal action is as seductive as a heroine habit. Just as the KGB never really died in Russia, some important community members of the US community have become habituated to extralegal security actions, and will now feel naked if they don't have that blanket comforting them. Those members are not just leaders, there are many followers who have watched a lot of TV police drama and think that's how the real world should work.
Terrorism existed long before 9-11. Before 9-11 anti-terrorism was a legal matter. The terrorists were a small subset of the big family of all kinds of criminals. One of the mistakes of the 9-11 Response has been elevating terrorists to de facto nation status (so that the American nation can fight them face-to-face), and declaring its "citizens" to be soldiers, so they can be kept outside the American legal system. Allowing the government to treat terrorists as soldiers rather than criminals has been a huge mistake. Defining terrorists soldiers means that the wrong social tools have been used to solve the problem, and, as a result, the terrorist problem has been solved poorly... very poorly.
Terrorism is a form of advertising. Sadly, the media gives huge discounts to the terrorist's advertising dollar by giving them so much free coverage. It does so because that coverage gives the media news a ratings boost. Which means, in effect, commercial advertisers are subsidizing terrorism because they pay real dollars for media news, and the media news are talent agents who pick and choose which terrorist "shows" should be put on the air. The media should recognize its symbiotic relation with terrorism, and change its coverage so that the two are not mutually supporting.
School lock downs are an example of institutionalizing fear. We are training our Future Americans to be afraid, very afraid. To cower in the face of threat, to hide and do nothing when nebulous danger stalks the land. Do we really want to be doing this? This is wrong on so many levels!
The concept that there are special crimes which are so heinous that they deserve special punishment or special legal proceedings, is a poor idea. Crime should be just as much a level playing field as business. And, there should be just a few broad rules, not thousands of nit-picky rules with lots of loopholes.
The first victim of "crime specialization" is social flexibility. An example of crime specialization gone wrong is the sudden disfavor of rope nooses following the media blowup of the Jena Incident in 2007. Nooses have a long history in America of symbolizing death by hanging. Historically it has been a mild symbol and one associated mostly with lynch mobs in Western movies. Now, largely arbitrarily, it has become a modern symbol of racial violence.
Poof! Where did that meaning come from?
This is an example of the abuse, and inflexibility, that advocating "special crimes" brings to society. There is no reason for Americans to be getting their "knickers in a twist" about nooses. Let it pass... let it pass.
America is getting old. We have blackouts and bridge collapses. Boston spends billions on its Big Dig, and you still can't find parking there! It still takes an hour to drive twelve miles in Boston rush hour!
There is a whole lot that America still needs. A whole lot of infrastructure and social improvement that will make America a better place to live. We should be directing our social attention to the real and close-at-hand problems such as making America's infrastructure better, not worrying about nearly-phantom terrorists.
Back to Boston as an example: Instead of hearing about Boston government people thinking strange plastic signs are possible terrorist bombs, and spending a lot of time and effort justifying that thinking, I should be hearing about Boston people thinking of new ways to solve their parking problems. I should see articles about them discussing how to lay out new road networks, how to mesh convenient parking lots into pleasing town architecture, how to prepare for cars that drive themselves. I should hear about Boston officials boasting that it will soon be easier to find parking in the Boston area than it is in LA.
This challenge America faces, the challenge of becoming a better place to live, is really the question of what people should spend their time thinking about. I lived in the Boston area thirty years ago when I went to college. I visited the area last year. Traffic-wise... nothing had changed! This means that the people of the Boston area have not done serious thinking about their traffic problems. They should be... it will improve their lives a lot!
This not solving the traffic problem is a good example of a community being distracted, of a community not thinking about the right problems.
This relates tightly to handing back responsibility to the individual. Discrimination laws say, by definition, that someone in the community wants to make a bad choice -- so bad, that it is important that the government interfere in the choice-making process. Do we really want to be saying that about our fellow Americans? Is it really true? Or, are those bad choice makers really making good choices when viewed through the prisms of their own experience?
It is time to dismantle anti-discrimination as a task of government. It is time to give that task back to the people who really should have it: the people making the choices. Government should be out of the anti-discrimination business.
The benefits of doing so are twofold: first, it gives America a lot more social flexibility, which we badly need these days. And second, it allows for true meritocracy. A meritocracy based on the situation the decision maker sees at the time the decision is being made.
Enfranchise America. This one is so important! Let me say it again: ENFRANCHISE AMERICA. This is the crime solver, this is the War on [fill-in-the-blank] solver, this is the government strengthener. What it means is as follows:
It is vital that all people of the American community feel that they have a say in their laws. Each time we enact a law that ignores the desires of part of the community, we are disenfranchising that part of the community. That's a bad thing, once that happens, those who are disenfranchised don't give a damn. An extreme case of chronic not-giving-a-damn is the Palestine situation. Some people in that arena haven't been enfranchised for seventy years -- three generations of not giving a damn. No wonder that situation is so messed up!
Make sure that the government represents all the community. Very much related to the above. Make sure the community knows when the government is taking a "cheap shot" at part of the community. Educate the community so that all the people of the community think taking cheap shots is bad government, and politicians that do it are voted out.
"There ought to be a law!" is a piss-poor attitude because it's disenfranchising. Instead the slogan should be, "Help those people learn that they are bothering or hurting others."
People are good decision makers. They wouldn't be living here on Earth if they, and all their ancestors, weren't. What people do that vexes their neighbors is make choices based on their own perceptions of risks and rewards, not their watching neighbor's perception. We need to relearn to respect that a person can make his or her own choice. Other people may decide their "right" is not the same as what we perceive their "right" to be. That's OK, and we don't need a law prohibiting their choice, even if it seems crazy to us. Drug use is the most famous place people get into arguments over this, but far from the only place.
What we as a community should be striving to do is educate on risk perception. But, we should just advise, not prescribe. Punishment for bad choices should come from the consequences of the choice, not from laws... and people should know that's the case. That is teaching responsible choice making.
We should not be enacting laws that enforce one group's perception of right in the face of another's viewpoint. Especially when that second viewpoint is the viewpoint of the decision maker who will benefit or suffer the most from the decision made.
Right now, in Congress (November 2007), we have an example of doing it wrong, of taking away responsibility, moving through the legal system. The House has passed a law designed to combat what it is calling "predatory lending practices." This law is supposed to be discouraging the bad practices that lead to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis. But... congress should not be involved in this. The banks and lenders have both suffered a lot already. Neither group wants to go through this again, so a repeat is not going to happen, new law, or not. What the new law will do, which is wrong, is take decision-making out of the hands of bankers and would-be loaners. Instead of their deciding what is right and what is wrong, a law will decide... and because it is hasty and inflexible, the law will make the wrong decision.
This making of laws to protect people from their own decision making poisons the community in many ways. These are not the kinds of laws the government should be making. AND I WANT TO SEE A POLITICIAN WHO IS SHOUTING THIS OUT TO THE SKY!
Closely related to the above. "Wars on" campaigns are strongly disenfranchising campaigns. Whoever the war is being fought against is being disenfranchised. So... we end up with a large minority who wants to work around the law, and we end up with enforcement officials in a situation where they can't ever win -- they can't ever please their community with their good efforts. If an enforcement official can't win, they will be steadily tempted to "join" instead -- and become corrupt. Once they become corrupt, someone is praising them in a most sincere way, which can make life a lot more satisfying. It is inevitable that unwinnable "Wars on" and corruption go hand-in-hand.
In addition to all the other problems the "Wars on" cause, they kill support for government. More on this next.
When people of the community are disenfranchised, the government suffers, too. Each time a government passes a disenfranchising law, it loses support from those disenfranchised. That weakens the government's authority. It is possible, very possible, to not pay attention to a government. It's not just possible, it's likely... and it grows each time the government enacts a law that looks "silly" to part of the community.
The most famous historic example of enacting a "silly" law, and both the government and the community suffering from its disenfranchising effect, was the Volstead Act, which brought about the Prohibition Era in the US. A current famous example of a government that is not paid attention to is Somalia's national government. Somalians in their day-to-day lives pay attention to warlords, not the national government.
We should demand that our governments back off from passing silly, faddish, "Mother Theresa laws" (these days cities passing trans-fats laws about restaurant food fall in this category) and instead spend more time designing well thought out laws. A well thought out law is one that is acceptable to the whole community. If the government can't create a well thought out law to pass, it should not pass anything -- doing nothing when there's nothing to be done is OK.
America of the '40's through '60's was famous for its "Can do" attitude -- the idea that no task was too big or too difficult for America to accomplish.
The justification for this Can Do attitude was America's great flexibility in social and economic systems -- if something needed to be changed, it could be changed.
This is no longer so true in America. We have changed instead to centering our thinking on correcting injustice (hate crimes and anti-discrimination) and removing fear (anti-terrorism) as goals.
These are nice goals, but they are both inflexible, and they don't focus attention on doing better. That was the magic of Can Doism, the magic of doing better. Lets get that magic back.
Americans are getting what they want.
Sadly, I think this is true. Americans are getting what they want from their community. They want to be free from fear, so they are paying attention to anti-terrorism. They want to eliminate perceived injustice, so they are pursuing identifying new hate crimes.
So, fixing America becomes a question of fixing what Americans think about. This means we should be paying more attention to the education system. This is where Americans learn what is important, what to pay attention to.
We need to pay more attention to the attitudes that teachers are teaching. We need to see less promotion of "making a stand" (single issue advocacy) and more of understanding other people's point of view (protecting minority opinion and enfranchisement). We also need to be promoting flexibility (more than one right answer).
American politicians and American media are talking about the wrong things. They are squabbling -- talking about little issues that will be meaningless by next week. I'd like to see the politicians and media talking about enduring issues.
What I have listed above are issues that I think are enduring issues. These are the issues I'd like to hear American politicians talking about.
-- The End --