Politics and Culture: Point-Counter Point

We are living in a time when it seems as though no one knows how to talk to one another.  As a society, we are polarized.  The government is polarized, the media is polarized,  the classes are polarized, the economy is polarized.  And those in positions of power are not able or perhaps do not have the desire to change this dynamic. All the while, people are suffering.

What follows are two distinct but related essays that provide insight into this problem, which is really defined by our current culture — political, social and economic.  The first, written by Harold DeRienzo, suggests that a reconstruction of our culture is needed. Brian Sahd counters this view by arguing that as a society we need to rediscover our cultural heritage of mutual cooperation, which may be dormant but can be revived.  Enjoy.  Comments are welcomed.

The Undoing of a Liberal

By Harold DeRienzo

Through this essay, I hope to stimulate discussion around the concepts of politics and culture based on a belief that culture is enabling as well as disabling.  And once a disabling culture dominates for most of those in a given society, there will be no improvement for those disabled masses through economic or political action without a shift in culture.

Admittedly, I also write this essay out of frustration.  As a lifelong liberal, I feel betrayed by the fact that four decades of work may have resulted in helping many people, but on the whole the conditions of the poor and working class (including the erstwhile middle class), have worsened.  To begin to address that frustration and to begin this exercise with an exploration of political labels, I would say:

To be liberal is to be generous – even if that generosity impinges upon on the wealth of others.  To be liberal is to suspect fault in circumstances before finding fault in those within them.  To be liberal is to believe in people and to desire that society provide, by law or convention, ample opportunity to vindicate those beliefs, beliefs based upon faith in the ability of people to frame and address their own problems.  To be liberal is to believe that there is good in all people, and that obstinacy, even the acceptance of evident evil, whether expressed in acceptable, age-old practices of passive discrimination or generally acceptable and targeted abuse of certain population segments, can be overcome with reasoning and the proper airing of facts.  To repeat one bible reference that became one of the many mantras of the 1960s generation, a liberal would say that “the truth will set you free.”

To be conservative is to be stingy – even to the point of causing pain and suffering in defenseless others.  To be conservative is to see fault in the individual, first and foremost, and not within those circumstances that are working quite well from the conservative’s personal or class perspective.  To be conservative is to believe that people cannot be trusted and that society, by law or convention, must protect the productive, upstanding, moral classes against those who are immoral, shiftless and lazy.  To be conservative is to believe that all people are basically bad, that human nature, without strict rules and regulations, will plunge us all into that “warre of every man against every man,” as described by Thomas Hobbes.  And so, the conservative would continue to construct protective barriers around existing wealth and privilege, responding to the liberal’s naive belief in people, by retorting that  “the truth will keep you alive.”

I was a liberal. But once that path is abandoned, there are only so many alternatives available – apathy, conservatism or radicalism.  Apathy is for the defeatist.  Conservatism, at least in its most basic form, seemed to me little more than a formalized combination of rationalized fear and greed: fear against an overreaching government intent on eliminating our liberties, a fear that did not extend to overreaching corporations that increasingly control everything from our globalized economic markets to our DNA; fear against those less fortunate than ourselves who covet that which we have; greed, justified on the basis of what is good for those who do well, is good for all – eventually.  And radicalism is – well, what is it, really?

In contrast to accepting the underlying validity of the status quo, radicalism requires examination of the roots of problems we now face in order to figure out how best to address them.   To be a radical is not to eviscerate authority, to destroy institutions, or even to foment revolution.  As stated so eloquently by Ortega y Gassett, history has logic – its own logic.  Deny that logic and the basis for that logic will only cause it to return in another form.  Or to quote from the rock band, The Who — “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”  To paraphrase again from Ortgega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses, the only way to really change history is first to absorb it, process it, and then apply it in a manner that we, as a people, are capable of managing and maintaining in whatever historical circumstances we find ourselves in.  In other words, we can truly change circumstances only if we accept that there is a reason for the circumstances we find ourselves in at any point in time.  Without that acceptance, we might replace one government for another, but that change is only formal, perhaps like Egypt after the fall of Mubarak, and now Morsi, where there has been formal change, but little is being done about transforming society to provide better access to opportunity for all, including women, and where one dominating and exclusive political faction merely replaces another.  Only through transformation from the inside out, is genuine change accomplished.

My tenure as a liberal began when I was young and always searching – searching for myself, searching for understanding, searching for answers, searching for the truth.  Expression of that search initially found its way through poetry.  But truth is easy when one is immersed in self-constructed abstractions.  My ability to write poetry ceased when I became actively engaged in the reality of the South Bronx of the 1970s, first working with children and later with their parents who struggled to survive in an area abandoned by society at large, at a time when fires were a daily occurrence and no familiar landscape was immune from destruction.  Still, I believed it only necessary to work hard and to expose the struggles of the day in order to receive help and solve the problems of disinvestment, arson, and abandonment.   But I also believed in self-help and the power of people working together.  I believed that our very success as a species was based upon collective work, mutual aid, and cooperation.  In fact, this is how I viewed the most prominent feature of human progress, our culture.

In my book, The Concept of Community, I defined culture as “the expression of people living and working collectively within an environment as they attempt to understand, enjoy, and ultimately transform their shared circumstances.”   Later in the same chapter, I posit that “culture must be nourished through ongoing collective human endeavor in order to survive.”  I said these things because I believed them.  From the development of tools, to the organization of society, to music, to religion, and to all forms of human expression, labor and love, these all represented for me collective attempts to transform, understand, celebrate, demystify, enhance, integrate with, and extricate ourselves from the constraints of, our shared environment.

I do not believe I am alone in this belief.  In his book, Art as Experience, John Dewey stated that “culture is the product not of efforts of men put forth in a void or just upon themselves, but of prolonged and cumulative interaction with the environment.”  In Freedom and Culture he describes culture as the “complex of conditions which taxes the terms upon which human beings associate and live together.” These definitions could be seen as closely aligned with my own if the expression of culture would then come about through shared circumstances, interaction and collective activity.  But what if human beings just give up or simply allow others to deal with those taxing aspects of life, thus becoming passive objects subject to, and controlled by, circumstances beyond their control, or even their desire to control?

And worse yet, what if simple existence is what most people want?  At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall I remember reading an article in which an East Berliner was asked about western democracy and what that meant to him.  He aspired to it, but then summed up its essence as “canned beer and no responsibility.”  In a rather pessimistic assessment, Ortega y Gassett proposes that there are two kinds of people – those who constantly strive for improvement and those who are little more than buoys suspended in water and moving as the current demands, having no desire, and making no effort, to move in any self-directed, goal-oriented manner.

Would this acceptance of human nature destroy any appreciation for a collective culture or simply correct its meaning to include activities more in line with word’s origins?  Perhaps culture can be developed in the same way that a farmer transforms a raw piece of land into a corn field.   If so, then culture would be more a function of individual, or group, exploitation of the environment to achieve some common goal.  If so, then culture could be developed by the many, or the few, or the one.  The very basis of the word culture, from the Latin, colere, means “to till” or “to cultivate.”  Why not accept that some people not only are, but also should be, a part of the very environment that others seek to better understand, manipulate, control, transform, and even exploit for personal or specific group benefit – like a cornfield?   To accept such a thesis would be to accept that there are those who make culture, those who consume it, as well as those who are consumed by it.

According to  Hobbes, culture “signifies properly, and constantly, that labor which man bestows on anything, for the purpose to make benefit from it.”    He reinforces the notion that this conclusion regarding “anything” includes “anyone,” when he discusses circumstances where “men’s wills are…wrought to our purpose, not by force, but by compleasance.”  As such, we willingly submit to new norms of labor and leisure without protest or recognition of how our capacity for self-directed lives is compromised, while our very humanity is degraded in the process.

And what better word than complaisance to describe our current state of affairs where we increasingly surrender our independence while pretending to express it.  I admit it is depressing to think that John Stuart Mill was correct when he stated that “the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds, they exercise choice only among things commonly done… until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow.”  This observation is likely more true today than it was 150 years ago, but the difference may be that we actually believe that in our conformity, we are expressing our individuality.  We are the masses, even as we tout our tattoos, sport our latest gear, distract ourselves with the latest electronic gadgets, revel in our individual grooming habits, wear the latest styles, and proclaim our individuality with every step and breath.  We are willing captives, consumed by our own culture of mass consumption.  And at what price?

People in our society espouse individual freedom and yet are mostly conformists who surrender freedom with abandon.  What is the difference between living in a totalitarian regime that manipulates by appropriating public space and filling it with fear, jealousy, contempt, and suspicion and a situation where people willingly abandon public space to engage in self-amusing, narcissistic, ingratiating, crass commercialism?  Manipulation comes in many forms, but it is our contorted sense of individualism expressed through consumption that is little more, to paraphrase Rousseau, than flinging garlands over the chains of slavery that ultimately weigh us down.

So culture may not be the collective expression of people working together within any environment.  And this rather depressing view of culture has ramifications for all aspects of cultural expression, including politics, particularly democratic systems that can only survive through vigilance, interaction and collective participation.  Most people do not engage in politics. We consume it through massive waves of cyclical propaganda intended to convince us how to vote – in much the same way that we are convinced to purchase shampoo.  And just as we consume this propaganda, the political system it supports is consuming us, as manifested in the deteriorating economic circumstances of the average American over the past 40 years.

Perhaps, expecting citizens to work to maintain a democracy is just asking too much, just as it may be too much to ask that we all participate in the production of culture, as opposed to participating in its individualized consumption.  Perhaps it is true that people do not, by nature, seek fulfillment through collective action acted out in the public sphere.  Perhaps people do not really seek liberty, but only security and contentment.  [Alexander Herzen]  But therein lies irony.  That which promises security and contentment through consumer distractions and political surrender will ultimately undermine our capacity to maintain that security and contentment.

And so, where does this leave the disenchanted liberal?  A society comprised of little more than individual consumers is, for the most part and for political effect, a dead society.  We consume for consumption sake and our behavior consumes us in the process. Like Polonius, we sup, not where we eat but where we are eaten.  But unlike Polonius, slain by Hamlet and left for the worms, we are conscious and we do not even recognize our own political demise.  Or perhaps we do not care. There is always hope.  But within our current circumstances, where does a radical apply effort?

If the whole of our wealth was captured in a single fruit tree, a conservative would jealously guard it, fence it off, and ward off strangers, castigating them to get their own tree.  A liberal would argue that it is a privilege to be able to cultivate this tree, a privilege that is accompanied by a responsibility to assist the less fortunate, and that there is enough fruit to share so that some small amount could be distributed to others, without harming those directly benefiting from the tree’s bounty, especially its legal owner.  And a radical?

Some would argue, mistakenly, that a radical would uproot the tree and distribute the ripened fruit to all, chopping the tree into firewood, leaving nothing.  I would argue that a true radical would see the tree as framing the political issues of opportunity and access.  So that if there was ample access to work on the cultivation and maintenance of that tree, such as would permit compensation adequate to a reasonable standard of living, then the radical might remain a liberal after all.  If there was ample opportunity to plant and cultivate one’s own tree and earn a decent living from that effort, the radical may find solace in a truly open, free market system.  But what if there is neither adequate access to living wage jobs nor adequate opportunity for effective entrepreneurialism? In that case, there would really only be two options – appropriate the tree and administer it under public ownership or  tax the fruit to the level of general need and redistribute the proceeds accordingly. In other words, tax income and wealth at a level that provides for everyone to be fully nourished, adequately housed, healthy, and educated.

Given current circumstances, the true radical would engage in a kind of survival-liberalism in the short term, while working to change our culture of sham individualism.  This focus on culture is important because it is only through cultural transformation toward a more collective, participatory and inclusive society that we will be able to achieve a recognition of the need to change current economic arrangements.  Only then will there be potential for political transformation.  Survival liberalism would then seek, to the extent and in proportion to the inability to secure access and opportunity, substantial redistribution of wealth until such time as access and opportunity were achieved. This would be for its own sake, but also to avoid those mistakenly seen as radicals – those false prophets whose enduring banner of “liberty” calls for the masses to rise up and “bring down the system” – from having an opportunity to prevail.


Is The Future Winning?

By Dr. Brian Sahd

Should we throw in the towel? Should we scrap our existing system of government, our constitution, our Bill of Rights, and start anew?

My friend and mentor, Harry DeRienzo, may have already given up (at least on being a Liberal).  I am not sure anyone would blame him. We are witnessing the polarization of society. It is evident all around: Washington is polarized, the media is polarized, the classes, the races and ethnicities all are splitting apart in opposite directions.  Are these signs that our culture is becoming undone?  Or is what we are experiencing just another blip on the evolutionary road to democracy; a trip that began over 237 years ago?

The United States is a country founded on the underlying and deep belief in individual freedom – the opportunity to pursue our own happiness — within a system of limited government.  But besides the firm belief in individual rights, the Founding Fathers also believed in the greater good – the public good — a good that, when necessary, will and should take precedence over individual self interests.

Alexis de Tocqueville, as a young French aristocrat touring the nascent United States, described this affection for the common good: “The Americans are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principles of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a position of their time and property to the welfare of the state.” (de Tocqueville as quoted in Mark Hutter, 2012; 380.)

de Tocqueville reasoned that Americans understood the importance of the public good at times taking precedence over individual interest.  And our history is filled with stirring tales of individuals sacrificing their self-interest for the common good.  But does this principle of self-interest rightly understood still exist?  Today, authors such as Bill O’Reilly, Robert Reich, Richard Sennett among others question whether this fundamental element of America’s DNA is still evident. What if, as Reich warns, Americans are now less dependent on or polarized from our fellow citizens so much so that individual sacrifice for the greater good ceases to provide a personal benefit? (Hutter, 2012).  Is our current state of affairs so polarized that Americans no longer see the point of sacrificing for the common good.

DeRienzo addresses this demise in his essay the Undoing of a Liberal.  He seems to have lost faith in what it means to be a Liberal (as he describes it in the most generous terms).  But DeRienzo is mistaken; it is not the shift in what it means to be a liberal or conservative (for that matter) that has caused him to question where he stands along the ideological spectrum.

In my opinion the conservative and liberal labels are an inadequate lens to examine what is the real dilemma of whether or not a big part of our culture – the piece that de Tocqueville identified and Bill O’Reilly explores in his book Culture Wars –allows the public good to “take precedence over individual selfishness.” (O’Reilly, 2006).

DeRienzo’s experiences of the early 70’s are instructive. While working in the South Bronx as a young afterschool program coordinator for Casita Maria, he experienced first-hand the total chaos and tumult of the Bronx as it was burning.  His reaction to this situation and the reactions of countless others at the time, epitomized what de Tocqueville meant by the notion of the public good prevailing over individual self interest.  Today, with almost 40 years of history behind us, it is clear from the South Bronx experience that community and the greater good did indeed triumph over individual selfishness.

I believe what DeRienzo is experiencing now is not the undoing of his liberalism, but the changing culture of the United States.  It is not a question of the liberal or conservative label, in fact, in these current times, labels are almost meaningless.  The question is do Americans still believe in a shared culture of the public good.  It is the romantic in DeRienzo that still believes in the Liberal, Conservative, and Radical ideals?  We all know many professed Liberals that are greedy and without scruples and would sell their mother for a quick buck.  Liberals, who, at the drop of a hat, would cause unnecessary pain and suffering in defenseless others if it was in their political or economic self interest.  On the other hand, we all know Conservatives who would and have given the coats off their very backs to a homeless or defenseless person.  And radicals are some of the kindest folks I have known, although they are perhaps ideologically misguided.

What is more important than ideological labels are the changing ethos of our collective culture – Americans have lost the belief that the benefits of collective work, mutual aid or cooperation outweigh individual sacrifice.

Noted sociologist Richard Sennett in his latest book, Together, suggests that cooperation and mutual aid is embedded in our collective genes. He goes on to say that the mutual cooperation trait needs to be cultivated and nurtured particularly when interacting with those that are different or have contrasting opinions.

Sennett explains the polarization of society this way: America has become a increasingly tribal society; “people adverse to getting along with those who differ…Tribalism couples solidarity with others like yourself to aggression against those who differ” (Sennett, 2012: 3).

It may be too much to ask any liberal, conservative, or radical to go against the current tidal wave of self-interest.

If we accept that our culture no longer has room for individual sacrifice for the collective good, then is it the case, as DeRienzo would seem to suggest, that all is lost – it is too much to ask in today’s society, as Sennett seems to propose, that Americans participate collectively in the production of culture; only seeking to foster individualism.

Personally, I am not willing to concede this point.  Perhaps we did lose the capacity to see the benefits of selflessness of the individual when it comes to the public good.  But if we lost it, this intuitively means that we can find it again, does it not?

Take DeRienzo’s wealth tree.  A liberal might use the fruit and the tree itself in a hippy dippy manner to redistribute wealth, but the conservative would not jealously guard it and castigate all to get their own tree — far from it.  The conservative, if I channel Sean Hannity correctly, would capitalize on the tree by selling the seeds and the fruit and even the tree itself (at whatever price the market would bear).  The radical?  I suppose I am one of those mistaken folks that believe a true radical (revolutionary) would rip out the tree, roots and all, so that society can begin anew.  There is a key fourth political philosophy, however, and that is libertarianism. The libertarian believes that individual prosperity, both social and economic, is advanced by “as much liberty as possible” and “as little government as necessary.”

And what of the libertarian in this wealth tree scenario?  What Would Ron Paul Do (WWRPD)? DeRienzo describes it perfectly, albeit attributing the answer to his definition of a radical.  The libertarian would protect individual freedoms but be enlightened enough that the public good would take precedence over selfishness.  The libertarian would fight for the right of the individual to plant his or her own tree and to cultivate it without the interference of government.

But this wealth tree paradigm is distraction as is the talk of labels.  The burning question that needs to be discussed in an open and honest manner – before we all go down that rabbit hole where the sacrifice necessary for the public good no longer exists or is too far gone to return — is how do we, as the historian Robert Nisbet asked, rekindle the virtues of cooperation, community and caring about the social and economic health of the poor and defenseless.

It is easy to bash conservatives and liberals alike, just watch John Stewart or listen to Glenn Beck.  But it is clear that we are heading down a very dangerous path where a polarized or tribal society is the norm, where a media personality feels compelled to blatantly disrespect the mentally challenged citizen by using the ‘R” word on national television and is allowed to get way with the remark without a peep from the establishment.  Or consider that a United State’s President seemingly casually misuses a government agency to single out individuals and corporations simply because they disagree with his policies.   It is easy to determine that our culture has lost something important with the demise of mutual aid and cooperation – the sense of community. We as a society no longer are willing to sacrifice self-interest for the greater communal good.  But are we so far gone, as DeRienzo suggests, that we might only have two options left: socialism or communism?

I see another option. It involves faith.  I have faith in our nation and its people and our culture.  We might have lost a piece of our culture when at the moment all aspects of society are polarized, but I have faith that what is lost can be found once again.

Community and cooperation are not confined to a political ideology.  Despite seemingly divergent world views, I would contend that folks as different as those on the far left and those who are members of the Tea Party movement share a similar vision:  a culture that promotes mutual cooperation that at times takes precedence over individual self interest.  The issue is how do we, as a people, through shared culture, rediscover what made us feel the need for cooperation, motivated us to form inclusive communities, and caused us to believe that we shared a common destiny.

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