Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pro Publica

There is a common attitude in America, with many echoes elsewhere, to be sure, that I find extremely worrisome and unfortunate. This is an outlook on the world that emphasizes individual rights and interests over all else, and sees any limitation of individual rights for the sake of shared common, public interests as absolutely unacceptable. Those who endorse this point of view may agree with the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously declared, "There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals." This line of thinking is reflected in the modern-day priorities of libertarians and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, which strongly oppose most government spending on social programs that serve common human needs, like unemployment compensation funds to help the jobless and food stamps (SNAP) to feed the poor. In the most extreme right-wing thinking in the USA, talking of "common human needs" is in itself questionable, for "common" is all too reminiscent of "communism." What makes America great, in this view, is individual effort, not common structures or supports. This perspective is also bound up in the ferocious right-wing opposition to ANY kind of tax increase on wealthier Americans and/or powerful business corporations, which would be the most obvious ways to raise revenue to pay down the national debt and government operating deficit, as well as to provide for additional spending in needed areas like environmental protection and infrastructure repair. Since the individual is much more important than the government or the society, with the corporation often accorded the same respect as an individual person, a view endorsed by the current, conservative-leaning Supreme Court in the USA, taxes on individuals, whether persons or corporations, are seen as infringements on individual rights. By this understanding, individuals and corporations that amass large amounts of lucre should be allowed to keep it all for themselves, with any diminution of their treasure for public purposes viewed as misguided and even immoral infringements on the all-important shibboleth of individual rights.

I would argue that this way of thinking is wrong on multiple levels, from the political to the social to the natural to the spiritual, and actively harming the world that we live in. Let me start by repeating and enlarging upon that last phrase, "the world we live in." We live TOGETHER in a COMMON world. Without that world, and without our togetherness, our commonality, we cannot exist. We do not each possess our own private individual world that we can enjoy without any need for or interaction with others and their separate worlds. It is true that there has been a trend in the last 20-30 years for people with higher incomes to live in so-called "gated communities," which attempt to wall off the privileged few from the threat of the less wealthy and privileged, but their little neighborhood fortresses can provide little protection against more than burglars and door-to-door salesmen. We breathe COMMON air. We drink COMMON water, for even if you buy bottled water, that water ultimately comes from a common source, and were that source to be totally drowned in hazardous chemicals or nuclear waste, all the bottling companies in the world won't be of much use. We drive on COMMON streets and highways. We use COMMON electricity and railroads. We go to COMMON hospitals for care. We rely on COMMON courts and law and police. We speak a COMMON language or languages. We experience COMMON weather; good luck if you think you can purchase private protection to insulate you against raging blizzards, hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. We work in a COMMON economy, with massive disruptions in employment or lending rates or stock value affecting us all, whether directly or indirectly. We are all vulnerable little boats on a great common sea.

Most of the services we need to maintain all these common resources in good working order, from breathable air to drinkable water to drivable streets, to adequate emergency and health care services, to reliable banking and finance systems, depend on the government which depends in turn on taxation. All of these elements are linked together in a chain of absolute interdependence. The willingness of some current-day conservative and libertarian Americans, as well as their fellow travelers in other lands, to break this chain out of an anti-tax, anti-government fixation, supported by a misguided equation that less government equals more "freedom" and "liberty," is not merely regrettable, but actually reprehensible and even, in my opinion, criminal. Drastic cutting of governments budgets, the kind of "austerity" that is wrongly believed to cure societies of oversized governments and budgets and has been brutally imposed at horrendous human cost in European countries like Greece, Spain and Latvia, does not increase "freedom" or "liberty," unless you value the "freedom" to be unemployed, to starve, to lose your home, to have community services like streets, highways, bridges, water treatment plants and sewers fall to ruin, and the "liberty" to commit suicide or emigrate to another country that has hopefully not yet been exposed to the disease of austerity, which is what many Greeks, Spaniards and Latvians have been doing in recent years.

In America, the 30-year, post-Reagan political trend of not wanting to raise taxes for public services, out of a basic, widespread and in my view sadly misguided rejection of the usefulness of government, has resulted in a terrible crisis at the level of basic infrastructure. Highways, bridges, sewers, railroads, water delivery and many other systems, many of which were first established 50-100 years ago, are in terrible repair. A national engineering association gave America a D+ grade for the state of its infrastructure in 2009. Supposedly, nothing can be done about this because, again, supposedly, "There isn't any money." This despite America having the largest amount of accumulated wealth in the world. The top two percent have seen colossal growth in their income in the last several decades, and major corporations like the oil and gas companies, many of which pay very low or zero taxes due to loopholes in the tax system, have also seen booming profits. Believe me, there IS money, plenty of money. It is just not available for public use, being hoarded by the media-dominating dragons of private and corporate greed.

The basic problem is that there is insufficient determination by our political leaders to DEMAND that the wealthy and the corporations pay their fair share to maintain the systems that we all, even they, depend on. Most politicians are dependent on support from the super-wealthy and the massive corporations and are thus unwilling to ask the really tough questions about private greed versus public need. The right-wing opposition, often funded by the same super-wealthy persons and business interests that strongly supported the finance industry multi-millionaire Mitt Romney, have been able to block any attempt, such as President Obama's very reasonable proposal to create an infrastructure bank to provide funding for infrastructure maintenance and repair. (The Obama administration only got health care reform offering coverage to the tens of millions of previously uninsured in the USA approved by the Congress by creating a new system that guarantees massive profits for health insurance companies, which does not bode well for controlling or reducing health care costs, unfortunately. A fully public plan like single-payer Medicare would have allowed more hope for reducing costs, because we would have cut out the greedy corporate health insurance middleman.)

I believe that if there were more regard and more support for the COMMON good and the PUBLIC sphere, we would all be better off--even the super-wealthy and the ultra-libertarians. I am pretty sure they need clean air, water, and drivable roads too, and unless they really want internet companies like Google and Microsoft to take over public education and turn it into an internet commodity like Facebook,they and we are going to need public schools in the future, including decent buildings for our students and decent wages and benefits for our teachers. The public good, common welfare and government have been devalued and underrated for too long. Whatever abuses and mistakes government may commit, and there are many, it is still the only vehicle we have to ensure good basic services to support the interconnected world that we all live in.

I regret that a fair number of American Pagans seem to have drunk the anti-government, pro-individual rights, libertarian Kool-Aid. I think they are in unacknowledged contradiction of a basic Pagan value: love of and respect for nature. Unbridled private and corporate greed poses a huge threat to our natural environment. A strong government that protects natural resources is the best hope for saving our planet from corporate rape and ravage and massive pollution. I dare say the government fulfills a sacred duty when it protects our rivers, streams, mountains, forests and oceans. In that regard, the government should be seen as sacred by Pagans.

That may seem extreme or insane, to some, but consider this. In any Pagan mythology, there are gods that protect nature and the earth. Thor, for instance, is the protector of the earth, as the son of the earth, in Norse mythology. Well, who plays the part of Thor in protecting the earth in our modern world? Government more than anyone or anything else. I am proud to support various environmental organizations and do my little bit by recycling and driving a low-mileage car to reduce my share of pollution, but any really substantial progress will depend on government regulation of pollution and promotion of less polluting, more renewable and sustainable technologies.

So, to my fellow Pagans, I say, raise a glass to the government! And do not grumble when you pay your taxes. We need government. As little stewards of the earth, we can each play a part, but only a small part. We need government to be the big steward, the bureaucratic Thor, if you like. However, government does not always play this part as it should, so I urge you to occasionally contact your government officials to demand protection of our sacred earth. I believe this is part of our sacred duty as Pagans who embrace the sacredness of the earth and all its splendors.

This can also be noted in Paganism.


Ananta Androscoggin said...

Too bad the US motto was changed from "E Pluribus Unum" to the insipid "In God We Trust."

Every time I've read any of the libertarian rhetoric, I come away with the feeling that it all boils down to "I've got mine, so go away and die."

The insane American myth of the "Rugged Individualist" who needs no society which manufactures the various goods they use, in order to live by the Social Darwinist viewpoint of "The Survival of the Most Selfish, most Brutal Person." Whereas actual evolutionary laws could give a rodent's rump about the individual.

It would be nice if a few people in this country were interested in working to shift the attitudes from the present-day Dominionist Culture towards becoming a Partnership Culture.

I've also wondered if the attempts to make so many legal privileges for the wealthiest people is going to bring about a similar reaction to what happened a while back in another country with such conditions. That reaction was the French Revolution.

Maelstrom said...

My fears extend further back in time. I worry we were are heading for a new feudalism, with powerful corporations like the oil, tech,banking and defense industries in the new feudal manors, and the executives of these companies the new feudal lords, and the rest of us the constantly laboring serfs without rights or resources. A revolution might indeed be the logical and frightening result if current trends worsen.

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