Can We Get Along Without Authorities?

June 9th, 2012

Published on Dissident Voice, by David Swanson, June 7, 2012.

… Now I’m reminded of Albert Camus lamenting the demise of religious dogma.  Oh my goodness!  If we can’t blindly believe as permanent fact whatever some ancient book or robed preacher has to say, all will be absurdity. My gosh, we’ll have to …  (oh, the horror!) think for ourselves!  

Hayes is 100% right to highlight the danger of the destruction of the atmosphere.  Of course, even if 95% of Americans admitted to the facts (as no doubt they will at some point, possibly when it’s too late), barring major concerted action — as opposed to mere belief — by at least 1 or 2 percent of us, our government would proceed merrily along its destructive way.  But can we get to that 95% agreement mark by persuading people to trust authority?

I think people are listening to authorities — they’re just the wrong ones.  Rather than listening to scientists about science, they’re listening to jackasses with radio shows who know nothing about science.  Back in the heyday of belief in authorities (whenever that was) people didn’t always listen to scientists about evolution; many preferred to listen to charismatic charlatans rejecting evolution.  Perhaps as much as restoring a willingness to trust authorities, we need to instill a desire to learn from would-be authorities enough to judge which ones deserve our trust on matters beyond our own comprehension or direct knowledge.

Climate change is not theoretical.  There is evidence that can be shown to people, if they can get beyond the rejection of pointy-headed scientists that Hayes notes, and if they can also get beyond the religious belief that humans couldn’t harm the earth if they tried, not to mention the religious belief that harming the earth is unimportant or desirable.

Climate change increasingly can be shown to people up-close-and-personal.  And when it can’t, the magic of video and photography can show it to us from elsewhere on the planet.  Learning to look beyond the borders of the United States would do as much for our society as trusting intellectuals would.

War is a problem that, to my mind, resembles climate change.  Either can destroy us.  Either can be better understood by looking outside the United States.  Hayes, in describing well the gap between those in power in Washington and the other 99% of us, describes in particular the gap between the war deciders and that sliver of the U.S. population that actually fights the wars.  But what about the gap between us and the victims of our wars?  What about the power of patriotic flag-waving to overcome concern for troops, even among the troops themselves, who could and should refuse illegal orders?

Hayes draws the right parallel between our age and the 1770s.  We are in an era of taxation without representation.  Majority opinion is opposed by our government on every major issue.  Hayes even points out the danger lurking in the fact that the one institution people claim to trust is the military.  It’s worth drawing on the public’s contempt for every other form of authority, I think, to point out that the top commanders in the military are, in fact, banksters and politicians.

I suspect that the key to avoiding disorientation is to expect shortcomings.  We probably shouldn’t worry as much as Hayes does about whether baseball players use steroids.  We should probably expect a church that lies about the finality of death to lie about other things, including child abuse.  It’s not all the members of the church that did that; it’s a small group of very powerful people at the top.  In politics too, we should recognize the corrupting influence of power.  But we shouldn’t fault humanity because presidents are murderous thugs.  We should recognize the elite, as Hayes defines them, as elite.  We should be aware of their patterns of wrong-doing, rather than fantasizing that half of them, belonging to one of the two big political parties, are our close friends and role models.  That way lies disillusionment and disorientation.

We don’t need to get the mechanics right.  We won’t fix our government by ending the filibuster or by amending the Constitution to point out that corporations aren’t people and buying stuff isn’t protected speech.  I’m in favor of those things, but fundamentally we need to change our culture, create and follow better models, develop social capital of trust and community.

And yet, we’ll need to get some of the mechanics of government right too.  The founders of the United States, for all they got wrong, got power right in many ways.  Presidents were denied the power to launch wars.  The people’s representatives were given the power to impeach presidents.  The rule of law was placed above the law of rulers.  We need to recover all of that.  And doing so will require — as Hayes recommends — placing the power of the people to control the elite higher on our agenda than cheerleading for the half of the elite belonging to one of the two parties.

Hayes’ book — as is fairly typical of political books — has a title that at first sounds optimistic, but 215 of its 240 pages are devoted to describing the disaster under way, while the last 25 pages are set aside for the topic of what we might do about it.  Basically, Hayes recommends that we build a movement for progressive taxation by joining forces with upper-middle-class right wingers.  This might not be as crazy as it sounds.  We don’t need to find right wingers who favor progressive taxation, but we do need to create them.  No doubt that sounds extremely “elitist,” but we can create such people out of their own beliefs.

Hayes points to a 2010 study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely who found that Americans dramatically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality in their country.  Very few are really aware that 400 people have an average income more than ten thousand times that of the bottom 90 percent of us.  Norton and Ariely also found that “respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates….  All demographic groups — even … Republicans and the wealthy — desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.”

We won’t build this movement without experts and reliance on them.  But we will only do it without tyrants, and with a view of the future designed around active participation in self-governance as citizens, not lemmings.

Twilight of the Elites is an excellent guide post.  The similarly titled Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche famously claimed: “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.”  That’s a statement that becomes true as one lives it for oneself.  For his part, Nietzsche wrote it and quickly lost his mind.  If that’s disorienting, you’re still looking for the wrong type of authority. (full long text).

(David Swanson is an anti-war activist. Read other articles by David).

Links:

Wisconsin Embraces Fascism: Aspiring, Sticky-Sweet Authoritarian Dictator Remains Firmly in Power, on Dissident Voice, by Glen Barry, June 7, 2012;

PESTICIDES À VOLONTÉ, dans OWNI, par DOROTHÉE DESCAMPS, le 16 Mars 2012.

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