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Democracy in Crises and What to Do About It

The leadership vacuum continues in American politics. By ‘officially’ declaring loyalty to political partisanship above liberty as he did in his speech on April 13, President Obama in effect relinquished his role as commander in chief of the great American experiment in democracy: sustain innovation and advance human culture against despotism and ignorance. This is not the audacity of hope that many of us expected from him when we voted him into the White House in 2008.

 

I realized the limitations of President Obama’s leadership shortly after he became President but still underestimated how fast he would slip down the slope of history. All human errors and tragedies start with falsehood of some kind, either intentional (despotism) or unintentional (ignorance), that people tell themselves and each other. It is inevitable that history is dominated by one or the other type of falsehood at any particular time. For most part of human history, despotism has been its most visible enemy, denying the vast majority of people the opportunities to advance and better themselves economically, socially and spiritually. By inventing constitutional democracy, our founding fathers erected an ingenious defense against despotism for posterity. We are here today free to debate on the Republican vs. Democratic deficit reduction plans thanks in large part to the foresights and sacrifices made by our founding fathers. In contrast, despite the astonishing achievements made by my birth country (China) in recent decades, democracy at such a fundamental level and scale is still unimaginable in that part of the world. Every one of us should be very grateful and conscious of the preciousness and responsibility placed upon us by this historic gift. Democracy is not an entitlement and must be continuously nourished and defended or it will be weakened or even lost. Moreover, to strengthen democracy, we need to become more conscious of the other and more pervasive enemy of humankind, ignorance, precisely because despotism has become less threatening in our time. The openness of constitutional democracy creates opportunities of growth for hubris as well as authentic happiness. The current political struggles over fiscal policy and entitlement programs are essentially about differences in value judgments with regard to what promotes happiness vs. hubris in our government. This is the kind of conversation that a society or culture must have in order to advance itself but also one that is extremely difficult and volatile since they tend to arose the deepest emotions in people and blow society off the course of civil discourse. The essential quality of a great leader is his or her ability to create the vision and space for authentic dialogues between people of diverse circumstances and dispositions in seeking negotiated and constructive outcomes for themselves and their children. Certainly, Paul Ryan’s plan is not perfect or even fair to low income workers and seniors. However, in the face of the seriousness of the fiscal crisis and lack of leadership from either party, including the President himself, it has to be lauded as a courageous act and deserves the respect of every free person. Why didn’t President Obama seize this as an opportunity for dialogue instead of partisan attack? Why didn’t he act on the recommendations made by the deficit reduction commission that he appointed himself? Why didn’t he join or at least support the bipartisan efforts of the six senators to balance the budget? There can only be one answer: President Obama’s vision and leadership is too handicapped to meet the challenges faced by the nation and the world at this time of human history. So what can we do as ordinary citizens? To begin with, we must try to develop an independent mind, thus lessen the burdens of either despotism or ignorance. This is by no means ‘easy’ to do since herd mentality is both popular and coercive permeating every facet of human life (e.g. observe the way people respond to the calls of their bosses, spouses and opportunities to make a quick buck). The most encouraging sign of American democracy is the steadily growing population of independent voters in our political system. Secondly, we should try to develop compassion for our fellow human beings in their follies as well as virtues. This is not to encourage the folly, of course, but to create the necessary conditions to correct it. Human beings respond much less to logic than to emotions. Recall how many times you have resolved serious differences with loved ones through logical arguments vs. love and/or compassion. People need to feel safe and trusted before they will listen to any logic no matter how brilliant the latter might be. The most serious damage done by Obama’s retreat to partisanship is to entrench people’s emotions and persuasions deeper in their respective corners and make it much harder for this country to achieve the vision and actions of a shared and progressive future together. Third, we must learn to appreciate the beauty of a creative universe larger than any human imaginations. We need to continue to develop the arts and sciences of transforming human ignorance and fear into cultural diversity and creativity. Failure to do so result not only in depressed economies but also corrupt political systems and ruined civilizations as history has repeatedly demonstrated. Fortunately, the opportunities for creativity are not limited to the political elites who as a rule are most compromised or even corrupt. The real seeds of authentic living are more often sown at the fringes of established societies, organizations and families, where the forces of old immune systems are the weakest. At times of crisis such as ours, such fringes can be found at numerous places as the old order crumbles everywhere around us. The only question is if we have the courage, imagination and skills to create new orders. Temporary confusions and even wavering are human. Closed mindedness, bigotry and partisanship are not. They are the very definition of despotism, attempts to take advantage of people’s ignorance. It’s time for every freedom loving individual to stand on his or her own feet and fight such despotism from the political left and the right with conscience, courage and skill. That is the real meaning of democracy.

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Comment by Suzanne and Ron Dirsmith on April 24, 2011 at 3:16pm

Treasured friend, Yan Song:  Power (sometimes) Corrupts - Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

Americans are truly fortunate to have been born in this country. It is one of the precious few civilizations or societies that attempt to hold and protect the rights of the common individual as sacred. As a young boy I never thought much about this. Growing up in the depression we sort of assumed everyone, everywhere, was poor and lived just about the same as our family.  
Sometime between those remarkable Magdalenian people at Lascaux, 17,000 years ago, and Libya today, the male of the Homo Sapiens species began to unilaterally take control of and dominate most societies, civilizations, segments of leadership, political governments, commerce, trade, banking and money. Ordinary people were constrained, subjugated and manipulated, indentured often enslaved, through the political, religious, ethnic and financial restrictions of one form or another that were forced upon them by their so-called leaders. War became a major method of exacting such control and suppressing differing ideas or opinions. Only one civilization, the Minoan II, (c1425 - 1700 BCE) was peaceful. They lived in a true Partnership Society, with both male and female equally governing, for some 275 years without war. 
History has well documented this male domination from the Alexander the Great to Hannibal, the Caesars, Genghis Kahn, Henry VIII, King Francois I, countless Royal Families, Kings, Princes and Dukes. It mattered not whether it was a Kingdom or Fiefdom, Aristocracy or Republic, Dictatorship or Monarchy, Democratic or Republican. The male ruled. War was  his  solution to maintaining power and control if wheeling and dealing, chicanery, subterfuge, arranged marriages or whatever other tactic failed. Most people however are not malicious; only a few. But it is amazing to recognize how a single person in collusion with only a handful of others can take charge of and manipulate the course of people, a country and events. Shakespeare chronicled this phenomenon exceptionally in his wonderful writings. The creators of The Declaration of Independence and Constitution also understood this well. They crafted their concepts for a free people as best they could at the time, hoping to forge a better and fairer life for all. These dedicated individuals realized the vagaries and weaknesses of the human being. But they, the framers and authors, were all masculine.
All men are created equal. (except for women and some others). 
To further expand  his  authority, power and dominance ... man, not woman ... devised scorched earth military, political policies to dominate, instill fear and make people more easily submissive. These practices still exist from ancient Greek and Roman times through today ... always trying to be justified by the instigators using a variety of reasons and excuses ... National Security, Protection of Human Rights, Freedom and Liberty. The infamous Crusades, Hitler's London blitzkrieg fire-bombing, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Napalm, Agent Orange, the Shock and Awe doctrine of military planners and the on-going current crisis in the Middle East are only a few examples.
Riane Eisler, in her international best seller, The Chalice and The Blade, tells a riveting story of history, past, present, and possibilities for the future. She weaves together evidence from art, archaeology, religion, social science, history, and many other fields of inquiry into new patterns that more accurately fit the best available data. It shows that war and the "war of the sexes" are neither divinely nor biologically ordained. It further provides verification that a better future is possible ... and is in fact firmly rooted in the haunting drama of what actually happened in our past. Ashley Montagu, Princeton Anthropologist, believes that this may be the most important book since the Origin of the Species. Eisler also suggests that the world is now at a major critical crisis crossroad in time. 
Human beings may now be the true endangered species, joining the spotted owl, mountain gorilla, butterfly, as well as the thousands of other living organisms that have already vanished forever from the face of the planet. The human being now has the technology to alter the balance of nature with, or without the consent of others. As one recognizes the violence humans have done to one another and to our planet earth, human beings must consider the responsibility and accountability they all have for their actions, and in-actions, teachings, works and words, not only to themselves but to their grandparents (in the historical sense) and to their children and grandchildren (for their future) to restore and preserve that natural order. This was a major part of the early forbearers’ thinking process during the forming and creating of the United States of America. The American Way ... that must be preserved.
What lingers today is a sobering, somber realization. Each and every civilization, culture and society throughout the recorded course of human history that utilized economic power, financial manipulation, violence, war and military might to control and rule its people has perished and disappeared from the face of our planet earth. There have been no survivors, just archaeological remains and museum artifacts at best. Yet the very remnants of those remarkable civilizations are the very same built environments, artistry and creative achievements that have so moved many spiritually and emotionally.
Is this a continuing pattern that can be changed?  
The 2008 world wide housing and financial crisis seems to be yet another of man's inhumanity at work. It deeply shook, but did not destroy my own faith in, and hope for the basic honesty of the human being. 
Charles Ferguson documents the scope and magnitude of this economic catastrophe in his International and Oscar award winning documentary film, Inside Job. He interviews and portrays in the film (a few listed below) the major perpetrators and hundreds of their complicit associates as being part of a highly Byzantine, complex, corrupt and intertwining regulatory, rogue investment and banking system. A system with highly corrosive relationships which have corrupted politics, politicians, governmental regulations and academia, causing innocent people to loose over 20 trillion dollars! Each was partially responsible for, participated in, profited from, orchestrated, maneuvered, manipulated, legislated, permitted, tolerated, condoned and controlled (or failed to control) a near economic meltdown of the entire world's financial systems. 
Ferguson concludes with a powerful message. There is no moral justification for how Wall Street functions today. The film documents the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption, world wide. Wall Street's Masters of the Universe pocketed untold millions while they bankrupted their investors and their companies with their poisoned instruments.  
Power (sometimes) Corrupts - Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

Richard Fuld, CEO, Lehman Brothers
Joseph Cassano, CEO, AIG
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO, Goldman Sachs
John Prescott, CEO, Keller Williams Realty
Christopher Cox, Chairman, SEC
Phil Gramm, Texas Senator
Ian McCarthy, CEO, Beazer Homes
James Cayne, CEO, Bear Stearns
Angelo Mozilo, CEO, Countrywide Financial
Franklin Raines, CEO, Fannie Mae

Henry Paulson, US Treasury Secretary, Past CEO, Goldman Sachs
Alan Greenspan, Chairman, U S Federal Reserve Board
Timothy Geithner, President and now CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of New York
And all of the Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank

Ferguson's film clearly illustrates why these people should all be held responsible and accountable for their actions and/or inactions. They have left in their wake a calamitous economic collapse wreaking ruin and devastation upon millions of innocent people and almost bankrupting entire nations. How and who will make them accountable? Only time will reveal the true effects of their horrendous actions.

Future historians will probably reflect upon their nefarious, self-serving exploitations as being far more devastating to the world than those of Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron, or Charles Keating and his counterparts who participated in the tragic Savings and Loan scandal in 1988. 
My beloved grandmother, Minnie, was 93 when she died some 35 years ago. With only a 3rd grade education, she used to tell me,   "Don't believe everything you read and only half of what you see and hear."  … "Think before you open your mouth to say anything, and don't put your foot in it."    When asked who she was going to vote for in the election, she said in her wonderful street-smart way:

… "Who's ever in … vote em out."

 And when questioned why she offered such sage words of wisdom she replied:

"They make a lot of promises to get elected and come into office with all kinds of high-faluttin ideals about how they will change the world. By the end of their first year in office they realize there is no way they will ever change the system. By the end of the second year they realize most of the insiders have rigged the game. By the end of the third year they have seen all kinds of graft, corruption, 'old boy' cronyism, kickbacks, patronage, favoritism, special interest contributions and secret deals. By the end of their fourth year they have figured out how to do it themselves."

"Vote em out."

Her daughter (Ron's mother) was one of Mayor Richard J. Daley's secretaries. Her brother in law was alderman of Chicago's first ward around the turn of the century. She knew.

Maybe that is why Thomas Jefferson told his colleagues that a person should serve his country for only 4 years and then go home to his own business. He was a Unitarian … authored the Declaration of Independence … became one of the most respected presidents of the US … yet owned 400 slaves.

Somehow what our far-sighted forefathers created in 1776 must be preserved, not squandered.
Incipit Vita Nova.
Ron 

 

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