Driving down the interstate, your safe travel and even your life depends a lot on the competence of many other people. Sure, there is a body of law and court precedent and paid agreements with insurance companies that enforces the basic codes of decency and safety. But in the end it really comes down to the skill and attention of comrades in gasoline and steel being at their best not just casually but constantly.
Of course this fails from time to time, but considering how much time people spend behind the wheel it’s amazingly seamless and simple. The system largely works – we all get there nearly all the time. We depend on each other to not be stupid and the vast majority of the time it comes together.
This basic lesson in civics is a good place to start as the nation unravels into some kind of dark hole that frankly promises to only become darker with time. It’s a thought experiment, a self-taught lesson worth thinking through by malcontents and eggheads alike, by both those in power and those in pain.
“Civics”, as a concept, is usually taught as a lesson on the mechanics of a system. It’s usually quite tedious and completely devoid of the most important part of the basis of any good politics. Americans, as a people, appear to have not only ignored many of these lessons but are in some kind of open rebellion against the principles which guided the Founding Fathers to craft the system we have today – responsibility, consensus, and compromise.
Politics, for its part, is nothing more than the art and science of human interaction. Used with other terms like “office politics” or “domestic politics” the meaning becomes more clear, but in the abstract it’s considered something very ugly. Practicing politics, which is to say practicing the ability to get along with other people and get things done, is considered negative.
Starting from this perspective America today has absolutely nothing of any value going for it. That may seem harsh, but a failure to understand how intertwined our lives are at the most basic level possible means that we have absolutely no ability to take care of ourselves as a people.
Authoritarian rule is the only way to go, given this.
It doesn’t take much more than a casual think-through to see why this is utterly poisonous. We do indeed cooperate with each other constantly, as shown by our safe arrival home nearly every day in the example above.
Naturally, many of our relationships with everyone else are governed by the exchange of money, which is to say what we achieve after giving a quarter or so of our time to something that has generally been agreed is “productive”. The systems for determining this are analyzed as “economics” and are in some ways a different matter, but as we’ve explored before they also come down to a simple matter of our values. They become economic value through choices made as individuals and as a society as a whole, both.
Outside of these relationships, there are essential basic agreements which have nothing to do with law or money which are at the core of a society. Respect is a simple enough one which has fallen on hard times lately. Surrounded by glass and steel at 60 miles per hour the penalties for a lack of respect are obvious enough, but surrounded by the glow of a screen they appear much less so. It should be taken as obvious that no one truly knows what motivates someone else, yet how many articles, comments, and updates eventually wander into a phrase which starts, “You only say that because you …”?
The problem with this situation is that the separation from an actual human is just a bit greater than it is on the road – a place where “road rage” does indeed erupt on some rare occasions. At least when traveling there is a shared purpose and a well defined goal – we all want to get where we are going safely. In “politics” as we have come to understand it? All goals are personal, all goals revolve around power. Dominate the conversation, dominate the person, dominate the levers of power. Bend reality to your will and own it. There is no “us”, there is no civic imperative.
Thinking of it this way, it should seem obvious that what passes for “politics” today lives up to the presumption held by most people going into it – this is an ugly thing, so let’s make it as ugly as possible. Let’s ignore how much we rely on each other and the basic values which we do have in common. Let’s ignore respect and decency without any regard to the consequences because after all a “win” is what matters.
It’s obviously poison. It’s obviously nonsense, too. But it’s what has come to pass for “politics” – something utterly unrelated to the art and science of anything more than what feels good at the moment.
So let’s go back to road for a moment. Let’s go back to where the goal is obvious and where we do indeed largely cooperate. Let’s call that “civics” and start there. It’s about civilization and how it works.
Excellent post, Erik! Permission to re-blog?
Yes, by all means. Thank you!
Within a few years of the adoption of the Constitution of 1789, the Congress was passing laws allowing critics of the current administration to be imprisoned, and some were. Foreigners were prevented from owning property, obstructed from voting, could be arbitrarily deported…. (http://www.ushistory.org/us/19e.asp). It was very ugly. Woodrow Wilson was known for imprisoning political opponents (Debs). Point is, one can argue that the present dark times aren’t unprecedented in US politics.
But it seems to me that the “right” has, for decades now, been systematically tearing away at the vitals of society. It has targeted the chokepoints of civilization–the schools, the media, academia, organized religion. In a sense, perhaps, the powers of darkness have always done this. No amount of intellectualization can alter the fact that these are dark and terrifying times, when we are all challenged to demonstrate that we have a brain, a backbone, and a moral compass….
Yes, it has. And if we have to start from the ground up rebuilding first faith in civic life and then civics itself, we have to. I’m not sure what I can add at this point but it’s clear to me that we have to start over, to re-invent the wheel. Seems really stupid, but fine – it’s round folks, carry on.
I’ll be 67 in Feb. Rebuilding our society? One hell of a thing to be thinking about…..
Yes, I hear you. I have kids who are 16 and 20 and I keep thinking about the world I’ve passed on to them. I owe them more than this.
Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
In the divisiveness of the past year and a half, we have left something behind. My blogger-friend Erik hits the nail on the head in this post about cooperation and working together. Please take a moment or two to read this excellent post and then take a few more moments to think about what he says … he delivers an important message for us all!
I like this. We need to start at ground zero. If we can’t get along at all what can we do?
It’s worth a try. I wonder if people can imagine what would happen if things really did break down completely?
My friend Frieda Berryhill had grown up in Austria during WWII. She knew Fascism when she saw it and was terrified by what was happening under Bush II. Maybe it’s a mercy that she had passed before Trump.
It’s so sad. This is indeed fascism.
Has it ever occurred to you that some people are simple antisocial and maybe even psychotic?
Of course. The President-elect for example. But do we want to structure our society for the bottom of the barrel?
Yes. I have met a few of them. There are always a few. They can’t be the standard for everything, however.
Thank you. What excellent written thought!