You Say You Want a Revolution

Rebecca Spang tells us that the revolution is just getting started. That in spite of our desire for stability, for a return to normalcy, we are entering a period where “everything is up for grabs”.

The United States may not be having a revolution right now, but we are surely living in revolutionary times. If we do not perceive them as such, it is because news coverage and everyday conversations alike turn on nonhuman agents. Instead of visionary leaders or outraged crowds, viruses, markets, and climate change seem to shape events today. History feels like it is out of our hands.

Spang wrote this piece in April, before the George Floyd protests began. The news reports have turned to images outraged crowds in the streets, and it is beginning to feel like maybe, just maybe we can take history into our hands.

The United States of America can implode under external pressure and its own grave contradictions, or it can be reimagined and repurposed. Life will not go back to normal for us,

Nor should it. For far too long, “normal” has sucked for far too many people. The choice is up to us. What does a reimagined and repurposed USA look like? The #BlackLivesMatter protests are rallying around one goal #DefundThePolice, and the excessive reaction of the police themselves are making the best argument for doing that. But defunding the police is only a part of the solution. To successfully reimagine our society, we need to reexamine our values. Then to successfully repurpose we need to do the work and make the investments required.

Let’s start with our values. In this country we have some underlying conflicts of values. The prevailing values in this country, driving politics, culture, and economics seem to be:

  • Economic Freedom. Our system seems to value this most of all. The original wording of the Declaration of independence said that all men were entitled to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property”. `Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote about the glorification of the unfettered free market and the devastating impact that this outlook has had.

Today, economics, with its misapprehension that human beings are cost/benefit calculating machines, has come to dominate our politics and our lives. We’re left with an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus. We’re obsessed by supply and demand, driven by marketing and advertising to buck up and demand more to meet the burgeoning supply. The result has been devastating. Millions have been harmed.

  • Instant gratification. Our focus on the short term pervades every part of society, from our social lives to our economic system. We are addicted to “likes” on social media. We hook up on Tinder (when we aren’t sheltering in place), and our corporations are focused on maximizing this quarter’s revenue and growth. The focus on short term growth for financial institutions caused the 2008 banking crisis. (Remember that, it seems like a long time ago) . Our short term focus has led to disastrous results, such as the wildfires caused by PGE’s lack of investment in maintaining infrastructure
  • Winning. Back when I was in junior high school I was in a speech contest. I gave an impassioned speech about how we needed to invest in marginalized communities (yes, this was 1970, still making that argument) I won 3rd place. The winner made a speech about Vince Lombardi’s quote that “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” (Lombardi never actually said that. But the philosophy really took hold, and the result has been extra rewards to the “winners” and blame to the “losers” In 1965 the average CEO made 20 times the amount that the average worker in their company made. By 2017, that the average CEO made 278 times what the average worker did. Since a major part of CEO compensation was stock options, and the capital gains from stock options are taxed at a lower rate than wages, the inequality is even worse. Add to that the additional benefit that the wealthy get from better schools, better neighborhoods, etc. and we have a feedback loop which only goes in one direction. People who are already wealthy have influence over the laws that Ask any systems engineer what happens when a feedback loop has no balancing loop, and they will tell you that the system ultimately crashes.
  • Symbols. This one really hit home with me today when a Facebook friend posted this picture calling with the call for someone to publish the man’s name. He was sharing a post calling the protester here a terrorist. Now several of us objected, and pointed out that this is a citizen exercising 1st amendment rights, but others did indeed call him a traitor, placing more value on the symbol (the flag) then the constitution

We need to replace these values with new ones. Here are a few that I suggest:

  • Community. Not just our local community, but the wider community of humankind. We need to invest in each other, and provide opportunities and support to those further down the ladder. Ultimately, we need to know that we are all in this together.
  • Nature and the Environment. Global warming is wrecking havoc with our world, and habitat loss is increasing the spread of infectious disease such as Covid-19. We need to reduce our footprint and our impact
  • The commons. We need to learn that our shared spaces have value, protect them, and invest in them.
  • Education Look at the pay scale given teachers vs tech workers and you see the problem. Our schools, even in wealthy communities are underfunded. In poor communities? It is disastrous
  • Good Government. We have lived too long with the mantra that “government is the problem” . Today we are seeing that there are problems that require a government to be honest, energetic, and competent.
  • The long term. In 1971 the influential environmental activist Wendell Berry published a book titled “The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” Berry is talking about preserving nature for future generations, but his words give us a truth that can be applied to many things.

We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…

Revolutions are messy. Nobody can be really sure where they are going, but we need to start our revolution with a reexamination of the values that guide our way of life

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