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Archive for the ‘democracy’ Category

I live off to the side of the world, so my involvement in current affairs is intermittent at best. I don’t get caught up much in the minutia of day-to-day developments. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for us, things don’t change much.

I’ve been dipping in and out of these health care debates. Having spent most of my life in countries where health care is universal, I may have a different perspective on this than many Americans. But as a human being, I imagine we can somehow relate.

I grew up in Canada. When I was 24, I spent my first extended stay in the States, working at a magazine in New York City. After a particularly intense yoga class one day, I woke up in the middle of the night in intense pain. My calf muscle had popped out of place somehow, and felt as if it was being torn from my body. After the initial inchoate shock of pain, my first thought was, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t have health care.’ This was the first time, ever, this thought had entered my mind.

My next thought, fleeting because of the pain, was, ‘what a criminal thought to have to have.’ For 24 years I had lived with the invariant, bedrock sense that should anything happen, all I had to do was go to the doctor and everything else would be taken care of. That’s it. It wasn’t even really a thought; because there was no question that it could be otherwise, it had become part of the fabric of reality, a lifelong sense of security, simply the way things were.

My trauma that night was fairly minor—the muscle eventually just popped back into place—but there are millions of people in this country with more serious health concerns who spend their days—walk around, eat, work and sleep—with the opposite invariant sense from the one I grew up with. Rather than a sense of safety, of everything being taken care of, I imagine part of the fabric of their lives must be a sense of anxiety; should anything happen, there’s no one waiting to help.

My sense that this is criminal hasn’t shifted. It’s not the thought itself, of course, but the ongoing choice of a society so blessed, as this one is, to organize things in such a way that the thought is even possible.

Like any two- (or more) sided conflict, as long as they are governed by competing interests our debates about health care can seesaw along without cease. The only interest, the only ground for debate should be how can we eradicate that criminal thought—“I don’t have health care”—from American consciousness. Private, public…rather than narrowly delineating the discussion around existing territories, we should expand the dialogue to address the real question—how, in the 21st century, can the most powerful, most productive, wealthiest country in history organize itself to ensure that all of its citizens, regardless of economic standing, can have access to first-rate medical care? This is the only real remaining question when it comes to health care. As long as we all agree on that, start with that bedrock position and goal, then the rest, however haltingly, should follow.

This, it seems to me, is a decidedly human question—not limited to pro or con, liberal or conservative. It is a question, hopefully, we might all wish to answer.

I don’t have health care. I choose to live in this country because it has much to offer. Like any relationship, we take the good and the bad. This is one of the uglier features of my current sojourn. But contrary to conventional platitudes, people do change, sometimes. Usually, it takes some kind of trauma. Perhaps we can look around and see that we’ve got such an opportunity right now. With the economy foundering and millions of our neighbors, who’d up ‘til now been financially secure, in difficult straights, we can see that things aren’t always guaranteed, for any of us. And clearly we can see that our corporate leaders don’t always have our best interests at heart. Just as they can’t be trusted to run our economy safely or use our bailout money wisely, they can’t be relied upon to determine the status of our health.

If we take these cues and use this opportunity, we may be able to shift the debate from us and them, to we. We need to redefine the challenge in human terms; let’s not worry so much about “health care”, and realign our focus to caring about health.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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[Hi folks. I’ve been at a conference all week, jam packed busy. So I offer something brief here. Hopefully we can build on it over time.]

יהיויהי

The world is a giant mirror. Society, the earth, our own individual lives…everything in existence is simply a facet of this great reflection.

The exact nature of the mirror itself, who it is that’s actually doing the looking, cannot be put into words.

As long as we sit and wait for someone else to complete, redeem or save the world, the image we see in the mirror will continue to sit, to wait.

It is only when we get up to move that the image in the mirror, whatever Name we give it, too will move.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Is this true? Was FDR simply affecting rhetorical flourish, seeking a bon mot, or is there real wisdom in this phrase?

The first thing that Adam said to God after eating from the tree that got us cast out from Eden was, ‘I heard your voice in the garden, and I am afraid.’ This was not Adam relating some passing emotional episode; he was expressing the new nature of human existence.

As one teacher of mine put it, “fear is the glue that binds the ego together.” Eckart Tolle too, in both the Power of Now and A New Earth, points to fear as the underlying emotional impulse of the ego identity.

Let’s look at one more, long quote:

…a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Sound familiar? Possibly Barack Obama? This quote too, as with ‘fear itself’, comes from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. FDR closed his address by saying, “…in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money…”

Why has nothing changed? FDR said it himself, fear. But fear in so many dimensions it’s hard to capture, even to see: Fear that if we make too many changes, too fast, the system will collapse and we’ll all become poor (the ‘Sky is Falling’ economics); fear that we can’t let go of our individualized pursuit of wealth and wellbeing and broaden our orientation towards the health and wellbeing of all because then maybe I won’t get a reasonable share, maybe I won’t get enough (‘Ring of Gyges’ economics), and; underneath it all, the fear that comes from the misperception that we’re all separate, that we’re somehow not intimately and always connected to all that is—Adam’s fear.

“Ask not if a thing is possible. Ask only if it is necessary.” This quote from the Alter of Kelm, an old Jewish mystic, underlay an approach to the world that has as its basis not fear, but faith. Today, we might call it ‘Veil of Ignorance’ economics, after John Rawls “original position,” which posits that we should determine the course of justice in our world by divesting ourselves of personal details, that we should organize our societies and economies without knowing where we might find ourselves within them; that is, we should have as our guide truly blind justice. From behind a veil of ignorance, would we really choose to develop a society that awards roughly 85 percent of its resources to only 20 percent of the population? Not likely, since chances are we’d fall into the category that more or less gets shafted, the group that’s loosing their jobs right now, or didn’t have them to begin with.

Is ‘Veil of Ignorance’ economics necessary? Certainly. Is it possible? Who knows? We cannot predict the future; the only thing we can do is work today to build the one we choose and hope for the best—or if you prefer, put the results in God’s hands. What stands between us and building a world of true justice, freedom and peace? Only fear itself.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Trust is such a delicate bird. I’ve been planting recently, a number of things—hopes, ideas, dreams…Now, waiting to see how fertile the soil is, I grow restive; which way will things grow?

I’ve long admired the above quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., so full of hope and vision, so full of trust. In this world of mixed messages, it seems especially helpful. Which way are we going?

Earlier in the week, I was thinking I might write about the Obama administration’s plans to announce uniform fuel efficiency standards for automakers nationwide, kind of a continuation of an earlier posting about Chrysler’s bankruptcy. I was reflecting on the reasons why car manufacturers have been so keen on national standards, why they all want to share the same minimum requirements. It demonstrates a kind of retrograde vision, how the entire American industry is organized around least, rather than most.

Why be concerned with minimums at all? Shouldn’t all of our efforts, now more than ever, be focused on maximums? Essentially, the message the auto industry is sending is, we’ll only innovate if you force us. This lowest common denominator thinking is exactly why they’re in the toilet. This is simply another illustration of what was, after decades of championing it, a revelation about capitalism for the former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan: Rational self-interest is not the true organizing principle of our current economic system. Surprise!

What I’ve been thinking is, laudable as the impulse to establish them may be, why should we settle for the negotiated, compromised standards set by the federal government (35.5 miles per gallon by 2016)? Let’s set our own. If we can get enough Americans in their auto-buying years to commit, clearly and boldly, to only purchase an American automobile if it is a plug-in hybrid that gets x miles to the gallon (50? 60? 100?), we can send a clear message to the industry that they’ve got to step up to the plate. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be faced with the wilted fare on offer, which we either eat, or eschew in favor of foreign delicacies. If a million people were to sign on (we could even use this website, if anyone is interested in helping to set it up), which in today’s day and age is not an impossible number, it would represent a considerable share of the new car market. The industry would have to respond; it would shake them, somewhat, of their continuing drive to compete for the dwindling shares of the soon to be obsolete combustion engine market, and get them competing for the market of the future.

There are two forces in the universe, two directions—expanding and contracting. The first is based on trust, the second in fear. No matter where we are, we can find evidence for both; which we use to guide our actions, our lives, our world, is our own choice.

The heel-dragging of the American auto industry is based in fear. Its member are anxious, in part, that should any one of them innovate too quickly the others will get away with doing less, and possibly get more of the current market share.

In considering a move beyond government to “regulate” our auto industry, we find this week that available evidence also points in two very different directions—towards expansion or contraction—forcing us to make a choice. On the one hand, the very state that upped the ante on fuel standards, California, is in a legislative tailspin following what some would call the meddlesome involvement of its citizenry in Tuesday’s special ballot. Many are claiming the state to be ungovernable, and calling for constitutional amendment to limit public involvement in decision-making.

On the other hand, we see the birth of a landmark initiative by the Obama administration, calling for an open, nationwide brainstorming session on how to make government “more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.” Between May 21st and 28th, citizens are invited to share our ideas on how we can become more involved in our democracy—www.opengov.ideascale.com.

Which way do we go? The arc of democracy, such as it is, is long, but it bends towards ever greater involvement by the public. Now, we have historic tools at our disposal to make the endgame of this trajectory a more deeply experienced reality in our lives. At some point, as we progress along this arc, we will have to begin taking certain matters into our own hands. This week, we are being given an invitation to do so. How far we go in this direction will depend on whether we choose out of fear, or trust. Do we trust ourselves to do the right thing? Clearly, when we designate small groups to choose for us—industrial, legislative…they don’t always make the right decisions. Most research indicates that the many, within certain constraints, are wiser than the few. It’s not likely that we’ll do much worse.

Ultimately, democracy in its truest form will be not when government invites us to join in some of its decisions, but when we invite government to weigh in on ours. Perhaps it’s time we begin to grab the arc of our democracy and curve it a little closer to the mark.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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